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Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Meeting the test

The Editorial Board of the Charlotte Observer says that it is up to the North Carolina state Supreme Court to “restore democracy” to North Carolina after a three-judge panel approved of redistricting maps strongly favoring Republicans.

It was appropriate that a trial over North Carolina’s new election maps unfolded around the anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, for the issue before the three-judge panel was whether the court would prevent another assault on democracy.

The assault that took place in North Carolina’s capital wasn’t carried out by outsiders storming the legislative chambers. It was a quiet upending of fair elections executed by Republican members of North Carolina’s General Assembly as they drew and approved election maps designed to keep their party in power regardless of the popular will.

On Tuesday, the judges ruled unanimously that the local coup was OK. Now it will be up to the state Supreme Court to stand up for fair elections and restore democracy in North Carolina.

Cynics had predicted this ruling by simply looking at the affiliations of the judicial panel: Superior Court Judges Graham Shirley, Nathaniel Poovey and Dawn Layton – two Republicans and a Democrat. But more hopeful supporters of democracy hoped that partisanship would not blind the Republicans to election maps clearly drawn to give Republicans not only an unfair advantage, but in many districts an insurmountable one.

Ed Yong of The Atlantic writes that, yes, the COVID hospitalization numbers are bad.

Some COVID-positive patients are unquestionably hospitalized for COVID: They are mostly unvaccinated, have classic respiratory problems, and require supplemental oxygen. Omicron might be less severe than Delta, but that doesn’t make it mild. “If a virus that causes less severe lung disease affects an extraordinarily large proportion of the population, you’ll still get a lot of them in the hospital with severe lung disease,” Sara Murray, a hospitalist at UC San Francisco, told me. The proportion of such patients varies around the country: In areas where Omicron has taken off, it’s lower than in previous surges, but it remains high in communities that still have a lot of Delta infections or low vaccination rates, as The Washington Post has reported. At the University of Nebraska Medical Center, “the vast majority of our COVID-positive cases are at the hospital for reasons related to their COVID infection,” James Lawler, an infectious-disease physician, told me.

At the other extreme, there are patients whose COVID infection is truly incidental. They might have gone to an emergency room with a broken limb or a ruptured appendix, only to realize when they got tested that they also have asymptomatic COVID. Many health-care workers told me that they’ve treated such patients—but rarely. “It happens, but it’s not a big proportion,” Craig Spencer, an emergency physician at Columbia University Medical Center, told me.

The problem with splitting people into these two rough categories is that a lot of patients, including those with chronic illnesses, don’t fit neatly into either. COVID isn’t just a respiratory disease; it also affects other organ systems. It can make a weak heart beat erratically, turn a manageable case of diabetes into a severe one, or weaken a frail person to the point where they fall and break something. “If you’re on the margin of coming into the hospital, COVID tips you over,” Vineet Arora, a hospitalist at the University of Chicago Medicine, told me. In such cases, COVID might not be listed as a reason for admission, but the patient wouldn’t have been admitted were it not for COVID. (Some people might have chronic conditions only because of an earlier COVID infection, which can increase the risk of diabetes, heart problems, and other long-term complications.) “These incidental infections are not so incidental for people with chronic conditions,” Faust said. “Whether they live to see the age of 60 or 90 depends on things just like this.”

Dhruv Khullar of The New Yorker wonders what large-scale social changes may result from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus crisis is first and foremost a health crisis, and many of the most obvious changes in our attitudes have to do with health. Some of us have come to reflect more regularly on our age and medical conditions. We’ve gained familiarity with obscure scientific jargon, from PCR tests to mRNA. We meditate on the trade-offs involved in social events, examine the threats we pose to others (and vice versa), and judge people for their choices. Americans differ hugely on what to think and do about all this—the behavior of people in one community can seem unfathomable to those in another—but, at least for now, health has shifted from a narrow individual consideration to a more expansive, social one. Going to work, attending a concert, hosting a dinner party, boarding a flight—if you have a cough, a fever, or just the sniffles, these activities now carry an ethical dimension. Will this remain true after the acute threat of covid-19 has subsided? We may return to inflicting colds, flus, and various G.I. bugs on one another—or, possibly, we’ll adopt some version of the physician’s oath to do no harm.

The sense that making others sick is an action we’ve taken—and that, conversely, it’s within our power to avoid becoming agents of contagion—reflects a more general paradox of the pandemic. Since covid arrived, we’ve been both powerless and empowered. Many aspects of our lives have been changed by events beyond our control; at the same time, we have sometimes been pushed to make consequential decisions and chart our own course. Over the past two years, for instance, Americans have quit their jobs in record numbers; in some cases, they’ve been forced to do so—perhaps by medical vulnerability, or unprecedented disruptions in schooling—while, in others, the pandemic’s chaos presented an opportunity to reëvaluate priorities. Regardless, faced with historical circumstances, they made big changes. In this crisis, as in many rites of passage, we don’t just passively recite our lines; we write them, taking vows that may reverberate for decades.

One of the questions we face now is whether we can make such changes on a social level, in addition to an individual one. The pandemic’s school disruptions are the result not just of a novel virus but of years of underinvestment that have yielded underpaid teachers, crowded classrooms, and poorly ventilated buildings. We’ve seen the same pattern in many aspects of our pandemic experience. Decades of investment in basic science allowed American scientists to race from genomic sequencing to an effective covid vaccine in less than a year—but, during the same period, a public-health system that had been neglected for decades hampered our ability to contain the virus at every turn. We’ve made real changes in our lives. Can we make them in our society, too, building capacity so that our institutions can be more resilient and flexible?

Lindsey McPherson and David Lerman of Roll Call report that there is bipartisan legislation in the works for a new pandemic relief bill to provide financial assistance to restaurants, gyms, and live entertainment venues.

The restaurant industry has been clamoring for more federal aid since burning through $28.6 billion Congress provided as part of a pandemic relief package last year. Only about a third of the restaurants that applied for aid last year received a grant under the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, leaving nearly 200,000 restaurants and bars struggling to stay afloat without aid.

More than 90,000 restaurants and bars nationwide have closed since the beginning of the pandemic and more than 86 percent of owners say they may close if they don’t receive a grant, according to a recent survey from the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

Lawmakers of both parties introduced various bills last year offering up to $120 billion for restaurant aid, but none gained enough traction to win a floor vote in either chamber. Cardin introduced a bill last summer that would have provided $48 billion in additional relief.

Cardin declined to give many details about the discussions but said $40 billion is the ballpark figure lawmakers have discussed for new restaurant aid. He said the new package would include aid to other businesses, including live entertainment venues and gyms. “We are looking beyond just restaurants,” he said, while declining to offer a price tag for the entire package.

Yvette Williams writes for CNN noting the similarities of the fire in a Bronx apartment to the fire at the Grenfell Tower in London over four years ago.

We don’t yet know the full circumstances of the Bronx fire, yet there are already striking similarities to those at Grenfell. Much like in London, the New York blaze started in one apartment, there was not a functioning fire door and smoke then spread through the stairwell to every floor.

When the fire happened at Grenfell Tower, it turned the spotlight on whether the construction, refurbishment and management of the block, as well as existing building regulations, were adequate, and in particular how external cladding — placed on the building solely for aesthetic purposes — significantly contributed to the speed and spread of the fire. These questions sparked a larger fight for housing equality that is still being fought today.

Other similarities between the London and Bronx fires show race and social class must be part of the conversation about these catastrophes. The New York block contained affordable housing and is located in an area of the Bronx home to a large Muslim and migrant community. Indeed, many of those in the building were immigrants from the West African nation of The Gambia.

Robin Givhan of the Washington Post calls out the fakery of conservatives that attempt to use the rhetoric of Dr. King for their own ends.

The conservative attachment to MLK is often more romantic than that of his more direct heirs, who are the voting rights activists who have taken to the streets, who agitate for change, who do the hard work of organizing — some of whom decided not to attend Biden’s speech to underscore their exasperation, impatience and disillusionment with the president’s sense of urgency in seeing voting rights legislation passed.

As the memory of King has aged, it’s taken on a smooth-edged, golden hue. Quotations from his speeches have been memorialized in stone but they’ve also been repeated so often and with such disregard for context that they’ve taken on the depth and specificity of a daily horoscope. The words mean whatever you want them to mean.

King was only 39 years old when he died, and while he was more liberal than radical, it’s hard to imagine that he would be so revered if he were a 30-something activist today — a Black man marching in the streets and advocating for fair wages, voting rights, racial justice and a more equitable form of capitalism. He and his fellow protesters would likely be blamed for stirring the pot and creating upheaval in places where everything was just fine before they showed up spouting their un-American ideas — which is precisely what happened in his day.

Esther Webber of POLITICO Europe reports that, once again, BoJo the Clown is in hot water and that, once again, he might survive as prime minister. Or might not.

Johnson may have said he was sorry, but the move was — to put it mildly — unlikely to satisfy his critics on the opposition benches or in his own party.


You didn’t have to go far to find Conservatives who agreed with Starmer. In a remarkable intervention, Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative Party leader, called publicly for Johnson to resign. Later, Tory MP William Wragg told BBC Radio 4 that the prime minister’s position was “untenable.”

One Tory MP from the 2019 intake called the apology “half-arsed” and another, asked if the statement had helped, replied simply: “No.” One of these MPs said he had already submitted a letter to the 1922 committee — part of the process for triggering a leadership contest which could topple Johnson — and the other said he was minded to do so.

But for all the frothing anger, Johnson could yet limp on.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia of AlJazeera writes that the Brazilian Senate’s approval of the appointment of an evangelical pastor to Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court has further strengthened the political power of evangelicals in Brazil.

On December 1, evangelicals in Brazil celebrated the Senate’s approval of evangelical pastor, lawyer and staunch Bolsonaro ally André Mendonça’s appointment to Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court. As seen in a video clip widely shared on Brazilian social media, Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, reacted to the news of the Senate approving Mendonça’s appointment by jumping around and shouting “glory to God” and “hallelujah”. An evangelical pastor’s appointment to the nation’s highest court, coupled with Michelle Bolsonaro’s overtly religious celebration of his approval by Senate, added to the fears that the president and those close to him are working with hardline evangelical forces to erode secularism and democracy in Brazil.

Perhaps in an attempt to try and ease secular Brazilians’ fears about his agenda, during his confirmation hearing at the Senate’s Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee, Mendonça promised that he will “defend the secular state” as a supreme court judge. And on December 16, the day of his inauguration, he reiterated his support for secularism during a religious service at the headquarters of the influential evangelical church, Assembly of God. In his speech to nearly 4,000 attendees, including President Bolsonaro, his wife Michelle and several state ministers, Mendonça claimed that he “recognises and defends the importance of the secular state”. However, the fact that he chose to celebrate his inauguration at a religious service held by a church widely criticised for its hardline, anti-secular positions and controversial ties to Christian fundamentalist politicians, raised questions about the sincerity of his promises about protecting secular values.

Indeed, it is difficult to brush off the idea that Mendonça was appointed to the court due to the perception that his deeply held evangelical beliefs – rather than Brazil’s secular constitution – would guide his decisions on the bench. After all, Bolsonaro had openly declared in 2019 that he plans to appoint someone “terribly evangelical” to the court.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post reports on the negotiations taking place in Geneva between the United States and Russia over the Russian threat to Ukraine.

The Biden administration didn’t blink in this opening round in Geneva. In the aftermath of the meeting, U.S. officials prepared for the possibility that Russia could break off the talks and invade Ukraine as far west as Kyiv, or launch cyberattacks and other provocations to destabilize the Ukrainian government.

U.S. intelligence officials think President Vladimir Putin hasn’t yet decided which option he prefers. To prepare for the worst case of an all-out invasion, U.S. and allied intelligence officials are visiting Kyiv to plan a well-armed insurgency that could severely harass the attackers. If Russia climbed the ladder of escalation and tried to punish the United States with cyberattacks, the Biden administration is ready to respond in kind.

Why is Putin considering such risks in Ukraine? Administration officials think the Russian leader fears that the window is closing on his ability to affect the political future there. Kyiv is moving inexorably away from Russia and toward the West; it’s drawing closer to NATO, to the point that it’s almost a de facto member, even though actual membership is distant, if ever.

This crisis is likely still in its early stages, administration officials believe. And before Putin takes the irrevocable step of launching a war in Europe, White House officials are framing a diplomatic approach that could provide the Russian leader with a version of what he says he wants — a new security architecture in Europe — without compromising any important NATO principles. That’s the ideal outcome of such a crisis: an agreement that makes all sides safer and more secure.

Jon Cohen writes about the inspiring life story of pandemic whistleblower Rick Bright for Science, including Mr. Bright’s efforts to build an “alarm system” to protect against future pandemics.

Bright’s hardscrabble roots help explain his willingness to speak out, Lurie says. “When you overcome a huge amount of adversity, it builds a new kind of self-confidence and resilience.” But little else foreshadowed that Bright would become a leader in vaccine development and pandemic preparedness. Nearly 40 years ago, his high school in Hutchinson, Kansas, told him he could not attend his senior year because he had not received the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella. Turns out, he says, “my mother never vaccinated us for anything.”

Bright, who bounced between eight foster homes after his family fell apart because of an abusive stepfather, stresses that his mother wasn’t antivaccine. “We were a low-income family in a small town,” says Bright, who has six siblings. “It was an educational thing.”

He got vaccinated and finished high school—a notable feat given his background. “My choice in life growing up was to drop out of school early and take over the auto salvage business or work on the farm,” he says. College, he adds, never would have occurred to him, but while in high school he worked 40 hours a week at a restaurant owned by a family that valued education and encouraged him to keep studying. He enrolled at the University of Kansas as an accounting major, his ticket out of Hutchinson. But he soon dropped out and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, with no concrete plans.

Finally today, sociology and criminal justice professor Barbara Harris Combs writes for The Conversation about the highly racialized notion of “Southern hospitality.”

“At a minimum,” Walmsley said, “Ahmaud Arbery’s death should force us to consider expanding our definition of what a neighbor may be and how we treat them. I argue that maybe a neighbor is more than the people who just own property around your house. …”

In a sense, Walmsley was asking those assembled in the courtroom and watching on television to put themselves in Arbery’s running shoes and imagine the sheer shock of discovering that Southern hospitality had a violent reality.

Terms commonly used among Southerners can likewise mean the opposite of how they sound.

Consider the “bless your heart” that is meant as anything but a blessing, and, in fact, is used as a heavy dose of sarcasm. Or the respectful and deferential, “Yes, ma’am,” “No, sir,” or other courtesy titles customarily given to whites and withheld from Blacks, irrespective of their age. W.E.B. Du Bois referred to this last practice as “the public and psychological wage of whiteness.” Du Bois was suggesting that even among low-wage white earners, the racial identity of whiteness paid dividends that people of color could not collect.

Everyone have a great day!

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