The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Far-Right Prime Minister Culpable For India’s Pandemic Disaster

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

India has become the new global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with daily infections surpassing 300,000 per day and the official death toll—likely a massive underestimate—nearing a quarter of a million people. Hospitals are being overrun with patients, and the crisis is exacerbated by a devastating shortage of oxygen. The Indian judiciary has gone as far as threatening capital punishment for anyone caught trying to divert shipments of oxygen from around the country to affected areas. There have been dozens of deaths documented directly tied to a lack of oxygen.

Only a few months ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was basking in the glow of success at beating the virus and scientific experts were confounded as to why COVID-19 infections and related deaths were falling. India had access to two vaccines, a homegrown one developed by Bharat Biotech, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that was being mass-produced at Indian facilities. Mask wearing was reportedly nearly universal, and the Wall Street Journal hailed India's "proven pandemic strategy."

So, what happened?

Amandeep Sandhu, a journalist and novelist based in Bangalore, author of Bravado to Fear to Abandonment: Mental Health and the COVID-19 Lockdown, had a one-word explanation for me: "complacency." In an interview, he issued a scathing critique of the Modi government, saying it suffered from "arrogance, policy paralysis, and no efforts to learn from the past year." A government with a religious fundamentalist ideology that has taken aim at minority groups and elevated a form of fascist Hindu supremacy has failed its people spectacularly.

Sandhu cited how Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has retained a majority stranglehold on Indian politics for decades, sponsored massive in-person rallies this spring to shore up votes for state elections. Modi's Twitter feed is replete with videos of his speeches in early April (here, here, and here for example) where he boasted of "euphoric" crowds packed together like sardines with nary a mask in sight cheering him on. The phenomenon was not unlike Donald Trump's political rallies in the United States last year, which were often marked by increased rates of infection in the weeks following.

Modi also encouraged millions of Hindus to attend the Kumbh Mela festival that takes place every 12 years. This largest religious pilgrimage on earth involves masses of devotees submerging themselves in the Ganges River. A whopping 3.5 million people attended this year, even as rates of infection had begun to rise and public health experts warned of the potentially dire consequences.

A year ago, government leaders denounced a far smaller gathering by a Muslim organization called Tablighi Jamaat which was linked to the spread of the virus. A BPJ member of the legislative assembly from the state of Karnataka went as far as encouraging the lynching of Muslims over the gathering and said, "Spreading COVID-19 is also like terrorism, and all those who are spreading the virus are traitors." This year, no such pronouncements were aimed at the Hindu gathering that was many orders of magnitude larger.

Modi has also refused to negotiate with tens of thousands of poor farmers who began a mass occupation on the outskirts of the capital New Delhi last year in protest of new harsh privatization farm laws. While the number of farmers protesting declined during the annual spring harvest as they returned to pick crops on their farms, an estimated 15,000 still remain, and according to Sandhu, many more are ready to return if needed.

"What choice do the farmers have at this point?" asked Sandhu. "The farm laws will kill them in the next few years, and, heaven forbid, if the virus comes, it will kill them quickly. So, death is on both sides. What do they do?" And so, the farmers continue to protest, although, according to Sandhu, their outdoor occupation has not been linked to the spread of COVID-19 yet. Instead, farmers fear that the Modi government will use the pandemic as a tool to force them to end their protests.

Like Trump, Modi has gone out of his way to ensure he receives credit for combating the virus, launching a relief fund last year called PM Cares that has collected massive amounts of donations. And just like Trump, he has been opaque about disseminating and managing the fund. One activist called the PM Cares fund "a blatant scam."

In spite of being the world's largest manufacturer of COVID-19 vaccines, India has exported far more doses to other nations than were deployed internally. Modi has been accused of engaging in "vaccine diplomacy," giving away millions of vaccines to other nations to shore up his international support. Sandhu said that although he didn't hold India's vaccine exports against the Modi government given that the pandemic is a global disaster, what he does object to is how the privatization of Indian health care has kept vaccines out of the reach of the poorest Indians.

According to Sandhu, the "vaccine has been put on the open market with limited provision from the government to inoculate citizens." In other words, poor Indians have to wait far longer to obtain the vaccine compared to wealthier Indians who can walk into a private clinic and purchase a dose. Sandhu asked, "how will India's poor afford the vaccine? If they can't, we as a society, and the world at large, remain vulnerable. The vaccine must be free for all."

Now, as the Indian government flounders under international scrutiny with hundreds of thousands of new infections emerging each day, Modi, who is as prolific on Twitter as Trump had been before he was banished from the platform, appears more concerned about his image than about his country. His administration found time amid the crisis to demand that Twitter remove tweets critical of his handling of the pandemic—and the social media company complied.

It's not just Twitter that is validating Modi. Right-wing supporters of Indian origin in the U.S. routinely donate millions of dollars to float the Modi government's fascist educational programs and nationalist groups. Indeed, some groups like the Houston-based Sewa International are considered the U.S. arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the parent organization of the BJP. Sewa International, taking advantage of international concern over India's coronavirus crisis, is seeking to raise $10 million for oxygen concentrators and other medical supplies. But, in 2004, the organization was implicated in a scam where it diverted funding from the British public intended for earthquake relief toward the building of ideological Hindu supremacist schools. More recently, the group was caught restricting funding for flood victims in Kerala to Hindus only.

President Joe Biden's administration has also faced criticism for embracing the BJP and its authoritarianism, continuing a trend from the previous administration. Biden appointed Sri Preston Kulkarni, an Indian American with ties to the RSS, to a key position in AmeriCorps. Kulkarni ran a failed campaign for a congressional seat representing Texas with funding help from Ramesh Bhutada, who is now the director of Sewa International.

The Biden administration has been under pressure for months to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, weighing the need for pharmaceutical corporations to reap profits against the lives of millions. Now, with India's devastating crisis, Biden once again considered the option ahead of a World Trade Organization meeting on April 30. But by the time the waived patents are put to use, hundreds of thousands more will have died.

In the meantime, Indians continue dying in numbers so large that the capital New Delhi glows at night from the fires of mass cremations. As the hashtag #ResignModi began trending to new heights, Sandhu summarized succinctly that "the government has failed on all accounts."

Why Republicans Are Turning Transgender Children Into Political Scapegoats

The GOP's latest culture war is focused squarely on the nation's transgender community, specifically transgender youth. It isn't a new war, simply a new front in an old war that can be traced back to the famed "bathroom bills" from some years ago that spread across dozens of states. Those bills were introduced in tandem with former President Donald Trump's targeted federal government-led attacks that included the overturning of anti-discrimination statutes protecting trans people and an outright transgender ban in the U.S. military.

Now, in the wake of Trump's humiliating electoral loss, Republicans have accelerated the state-level attacks to a breathtaking level. In just the first three months of 2021, GOP-led state legislatures introduced more bills aimed at transgender people, especially youth, than they did over the entire previous year. There are now more than 80 bills introduced this year alone that, according to Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, "are not addressing any real problem, and they're not being requested by constituents. Rather, this effort is being driven by national far-right organizations attempting to score political points by sowing fear and hate."

I recently spoke with Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of the award-winning book Histories of the Transgender Child, in an interview, and she echoed this claim, saying, "A lot of authoritarian political movements are using trans people as their scapegoats." She called the latest wave of anti-trans legislation "an unprecedented assault in terms of just the magnitude of the bills and the severity of what they propose to do in terms of criminalizing basic access to health care and equal access to education."

She explained that "due to perhaps their general political incompetency, a lot of [Trump's attacks on transgender people] didn't really end up making it into practice." However, "on the state level, as is often the case, the GOP is much more successful at pursuing an anti-trans agenda than they ever are at the federal level." Gill-Peterson sees this as a culmination of efforts that can be traced back to North Carolina's 2016 passage of a bill banning transgender people from using facilities of the gender they identify with.

On April 5, North Carolina Republicans continued what they began five years ago, introducing a bill called the "Youth Health Protection Act," which blocks transgender minors from accessing the health care they need upon deciding to transition. Just as the GOP has often couched its attacks on communities under the guise of protecting them (think of anti-abortion legislation presented as "fetal personhood" bills), this bill, like several others in states like Arkansas, purports to protect trans youth.

Republicans also claim they want to protect "fair competition," in the words of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, by banning transgender kids from sports. Lee, along with the governors of Arkansas and Mississippi, signed bills into law this year banning trans youth from playing sports in school. These transphobic bills are based on a theory that transgender kids, especially girls, have an unfair biological advantage over non-transgender girls.

Just as the GOP's stated war on voter fraud is based on an imagined assault on the nation's democracy in order to disguise the real war on voting, the conservative party's stated reason for going after transgender children's access to health care or participation in sports is based on an imagined crisis. Gill-Peterson said, "most of these lawmakers will admit they've never heard of any issue with transgender participation in sports in their state, and they've never heard of any issue around trans health care in their state, and they don't actually know any trans children."

The GOP's war on voting offers another analogue. If the GOP really cared about democracy, they would make voting easier, not harder. Similarly, if the party were truly interested in the safety of girls, it would offer up bills that protect transgender girls in particular, who face very real dangers. Gill-Peterson said, "young trans girls and trans women are extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence because it's not taken seriously." Instead, the bills banning access to health care and sports only fuel greater violence against them. Every year, dozens of trans women are killed, and more transgender people were killed in the U.S. in the first seven months of 2020 than all of the previous year. It's no surprise that the spike in violence has coincided with legislative attempts to dehumanize the community.

Just as with anti-voter and anti-abortion bills, the GOP's tactic of pursuing transphobic legislation involves wasting legislative time and money by passing clearly unconstitutional bills that are invariably legally challenged, remain tied up in the courts for years, and ultimately end up at the Supreme Court. Last summer, justices ruled against an attempt to legalize workplace discrimination against transgender employees, and then in the winter, they left in place a public school's accommodation of transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.

Whether the GOP wins or loses on this issue in the nation's highest court is almost beside the point because the party's goal is to distract its anxious base from the fact that their leaders do little to nothing about pervasive problems around inequality and depressed wages, a stagnant job market, and the ever-rising cost of living.

Moreover, the GOP's anti-trans bills fulfill part of a larger conservative agenda to create ever more exceptions to government-provided services such as health care and education, whittling away at the state's responsibility for resources to be available to all and rights to be respected universally. If hormone treatments, abortions, and medical treatments for immigrants are exceptions to government-provided health care; if public education is for everyone but transgender kids; then those services are weakened in service of libertarian fantasies of how society should function.

How to combat this brutality and inhumanity? Gill-Peterson pointed out, "the folks who are on the same side of this debate as the Republican legislators include a wide swath of extremist groups: white nationalists, anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, anti-immigrant groups." To meet this threat will require an equally broad coalition of progressives to stand guard against attacks on transgender people.

The state of South Dakota has been a testing ground for state-level legislation aimed at trans rights. Bill after bill has failed in that state, thanks largely to a coalition that has stood firm at every turn to protest them. Alongside transgender activists are parents, teachers, and doctors as well as national organizations like the ACLU and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Having a president like Joe Biden who has reaffirmed the humanity and dignity of transgender people, rather than targeting them for violence as Trump did, is also a huge help. "We need to see trans rights as integral to a broader agenda for democracy, justice, and public good in this country," said Gill-Peterson.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host, and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A Republican Mayor Blurts The Hideous Truth About GOP Ideology

As Texas battles a severe snowstorm and mass power outages this winter, Tim Boyd, the now-former Republican mayor of Colorado City, revealed his party's plan for the deadly extreme temperatures linked to climate change. In a lengthy Facebook post that was deleted soon after it went viral, then-Mayor Boyd told his residents that they were entirely on their own as the brutal winter weather caused mayhem and deaths across the Lone Star state.

His honesty was like catching a glimpse of a rare animal in the wild. "Sink or swim it's your choice!" he wrote, without bothering to couch his words in euphemisms. Boyd added, "The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!" For such an exhortation to come from the elected leader of a city—a man literally chosen by his people to ensure that local government works for them—was shocking.

Just as they pay their mayor, Colorado City's residents also pay authorities to provide them with basic necessities like electricity and water. But apparently, Boyd thought an expectation of services was out of line. He conjectured, "If you don't have electricity you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe." Many Texans have tried to do just that, running their car engine in their garage to warm their homes. So far in Harris County, there have been at least 50 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning and several people have died.

"If you have no water you deal without and think outside of the box to survive and supply water to your family," posited Boyd, expecting Texans who were searching for ways to provide their own electricity to also deal with a lack of water as pipes froze in the plummeting temperatures.

Boyd's diatribe veered into familiar Republican territory as he blamed residents for their own plight by saying, "If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your (sic) lazy [it] is [a] direct result of your raising." It is a long-simmering idea among conservatives that Americans who depend on their government are simply lazy.

Generally, white conservatives have reserved the word "lazy" for people of color who are victims of systemic racial discrimination. Indeed, the weather-related blackouts in Texas impacted the residents of minority neighborhoods disproportionately. Boyd and those who share his views would likely assume this must have been a direct result of their laziness.

Hours after writing his screed, Boyd announced his resignation and apologized. But he qualified his apology by saying that he never meant to imply that the helpless elderly were the lazy ones—just everyone else. "I was only making the statement that those folks that are too lazy to get up and fend for themselves but are capable should not be dealt a handout," he wrote in a manner that suggested he was "sorry, not sorry."

Most Republicans are not as overt as Boyd in their faith in social Darwinism. Take Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who instead of openly blaming Texans for their own suffering instead decided to blame climate-mitigating policies and renewable energy programs like wind power. Speaking on Fox News, Abbott railed against the "Green New Deal," claiming that a reliance on wind turbines was disastrous because the state's wind-generated power "thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis." For good measure, he added, "It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary."

The conservative Wall Street Journal, which has long been hostile to tackling climate change through renewable energy, repeated this claim in an editorial blaming "stricter emissions regulation" and the loss of coal-powered plants for widespread misery in the snow-blanketed South.

In fact, millions of Texans are going without power because of the Republican emphasis on cheap power over reliable power. Seeing electricity generation as a profit-making enterprise rather than the fulfillment of a public need, GOP policies in Texas have made the state vulnerable to such mass outages. Moreover, plenty of wintry areas successfully run wind turbines when properly prepared to do so. And, Abbott did not see fit to point out that harsh winter temperatures lead to frozen natural gas pipelines—the real culprit in the outages.

Even as a majority of Texans now believe that climate change is really happening, their governor in late January vowed to "protect the oil and gas industry from any type of hostile attack from Washington." Apparently protecting Texans from the ravages of the fossil fuel industry is not in his purview. This is hardly surprising given how much fossil fuel industry contributions have ensured Abbott's loyalty to oil and gas interests.

The conservative mindset can be counted on to prioritize private over public interests. In a Republican utopia, the rich are noble and deserving of basic necessities, comforts, and life itself. If they have rigged the system to benefit themselves, it means they are smart, not conniving. In the future that Republicans promise, "Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish (sic)," as per Boyd's post. In other words, our lives are expendable, and if we die, it is because we deserve it and were simply not smart enough to survive.

This was utterly predictable. Republicans have used this same approach on health care—think of all the Republican governors who backed lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act and opted their states out of the federal government's Medicaid program even though a majority of Americans support Obamacare. Even more Americans support the government nationalizing health care, but Republicans warn that if the program is expanded from Medicare for those over 65 to all Americans, it will suddenly become "socialism" and thus "evil." Their solution for health care is the status quo of a deregulated "Wild West" private insurance market.

Republicans have offered a similar approach to the coronavirus pandemic where any public safety standards set by the government are anathema to "personal freedoms," even though a majority of Americans support such precautions. It is also how Republicans have approached poverty and rising inequality: by opposing a federal government increase to the minimum wage even though most Americans want a floor of $15 an hour.

Interestingly, Republicans believe strongly in the idea of "big government" when it comes to regulating their pet social issues such as harsh anti-immigrant measures and attacks on abortion. (Meanwhile, most Americans support a pathway to legalization for the undocumented and a majority supports reproductive choice.)

As Americans are subject to the brutal impacts of inevitable climate change, we face a clear choice: strong government intervention to save our lives, or a "survival of the fittest" dystopia that contemporary conservatism promises. The Texas debacle is a preview of what is to come if the free-marketeers have their way while the climate changes. The nation's conservative party went from insisting that climate change does not exist (it is a "hoax!") to shrugging their shoulders and telling us, as Boyd did, that we're on our own when the consequences hit.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Amazon Mounts Intense Union-Busting Campaign At Alabama Warehouse

Reprinted with permission from Independent Media Institute

Thousands of warehouse workers at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, are at the center of a potentially game-changing union vote taking place right now. On February 8, the warehouse workers were sent ballots by mail to decide over the next seven weeks if they want to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Just getting to this point was a major victory considering the aggressive union busting by the world's largest retailer and the fact that employees are working during a pandemic. If workers vote affirmatively, they would have the first unionized Amazon workplace in the United States.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the RWDSU, described to me in an interview the shocking details of what he calls "the most aggressive anti-union effort I've ever seen," aimed at the 5,800-strong workforce. "They are doing everything they possibly can," he said. The company has been "bombarding people with propaganda throughout the warehouse. There are signs and banners and posters everywhere, even in the bathroom stalls."

According to Appelbaum, the company is also texting its workers throughout the course of the day urging a "no" vote and pulling people into "captive-audience" meetings. Unsurprisingly, Amazon is resorting to the most commonly told lie about unions: that it will cost workers more money to be in a union than not. One poster pasted on the wall of the warehouse claims, "you already know the union would charge you almost $500 a year in dues." But Alabama is a "right-to-work" state where workers cannot be compelled to join a union if they are hired into a union shop, nor can they be required to pay dues.

Complementing its heavy-handed in-person union-busting efforts is a slick website that the company created, DoItWithoutDues.com, where photos of happy workers giving thumbs-up signs create a veneer of contentment at the company. On its site, Amazon innocently offers its version of "facts" about a union that include scare-mongering reminders of how joining a union would give no guarantee of job security or better wages and benefits—with no mention of how Amazon certainly does not guarantee those things either.

On the company's own list of "Global Human Rights Principles," Amazon states, "We respect freedom of association and our employees' right to join, form, or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment."

But in a page out of Donald Trump and the Republicans' playbook, the company tried to insist that even in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the union vote must be "conducted manually, in-person, making it easy for associates to verify and cast their vote in close proximity to their workplace." The National Labor Relations Board rejected Amazon's appeal for a one-day physical election.

Ballots were mailed out to workers on February 8, and the union and its advocates are shrewdly using the seven-week-long voting period to campaign and encourage workers to vote "yes." But Amazon is also continuing its efforts at countering the RWDSU. Organizers in Bessemer had taken to engaging the workers while they stopped at a red light upon leaving the Amazon warehouse. But the company, according to Appelbaum, "had the city change the traffic light so our organizers wouldn't be able to speak to them." (A statement from Bessemer city denies the claim.)

So aggressive are Amazon's anti-union tactics that 50 members of Congress sent the company a warning letter saying, "We ask that you stop these strong-arm tactics immediately and allow your employees freely to exercise their right to organize a union." Even the company's own investors are so shocked by the tactics that more than 70 of them signed on to a letter urging Amazon to remain "neutral" in the vote.

The path to this union vote was paved by staggeringly high inequality that worsened during the pandemic as workers were stripped of their insultingly low hazard-bonus of $2 an hour while the company reaped massive gains over the past year. CEO and soon-to-be "Executive Chair" of Amazon, Jeff Bezos is the world's second-richest man. He is now worth a mind-boggling $188 billion and saw his wealth increase by $75 billion, over the past year alone—the same time period that about 20,000 of his workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bezos' announcement that he was moving into a new role at the company came on the same day that the Federal Trade Commission announced Amazon had stolen nearly $62 million in tips from drivers working for its "Flex" program. Appelbaum speculated that "what Bezos was trying to do was to create a distraction just like Trump would do," and that "instead of focusing on the $62 million they stole from their drivers, people would talk about the fact that Bezos was getting a new title."

Appelbaum sees the historic union vote in Bessemer as more than just a labor struggle. "Eighty-five percent of the people who work at the facility are African American. We see this being as much a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle," he said. Indeed, conditions at the warehouse are so shocking that they sound like a modern-day, technologically enabled incarnation of slavery. "People were being dehumanized and mistreated by Amazon," said the union president. He explained, "people get their assignments from a robot, they're disciplined by an app on their phone, and they're fired by text message. Every motion they make is being surveilled."

Union advocates are countering Amazon's combative anti-union efforts with their own information war. In addition to organizers talking to the warehouse workers in Bessemer every chance they get, an informational website Bamazonunion.org shares data from various studies about the dangerous working conditions in Amazon facilities. The site reminds workers that unions are able to win contracts where workers can only be fired for "just cause" and not on the whim of managers; that complaints against the company can be filed via formal grievances; and that wages and benefits are negotiated collectively.

As a proud union member of SAG-AFTRA, my colleagues and I at KPFK Pacifica Radio have benefited regularly from such protections even against a small nonprofit public radio station struggling to make ends meet. When faced with a ruthless for-profit corporation that has built its empire on the backs of a nonunionized workforce, Amazon's workers are on the front lines of those who most need the protections a union can provide.

"This election is the most important union election in many, many years because it's not just about this one Amazon facility in Alabama," said Appelbaum. "This election is really about the future of work, what the world is going to look like going forward. Amazon is transforming industry after industry, and they're also transforming the nature of work," he said. Indeed, the level to which Amazon has fought against unionization at just one warehouse in Alabama is an indication of how important it is to the company that its workers remain powerless.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How Trump’s Immigration Policy Makes Him An Accomplice Of Child Traffickers

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

President Donald Trump thinks of himself as a champion against human trafficking. He addressed a White House Summit on the issue in January claiming there was a "humanitarian crisis" at the border fomented by criminal organizations and that "traffickers victimize countless women and children." He signed an executive order and diverted $400 million in funding to combat the issue, boasting in his usual manner that "we have signed more legislation on human trafficking than any other administration has ever even thought about."

Read Now Show less