Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Post and Courier on the COVID-19 vaccine campaign and convincing the public to take the vaccine:
The first shot of the second wave of COVID-19 vaccinations in South Carolina came Monday at a nursing home in Greenville. Now the question becomes: How do we get enough Americans to take the shots so the nation soon reaches “herd immunity”? There is no single answer.
Recent polls on the willingness of people to be vaccinated point in different directions. The New York Times reports that repeated surveys by Gallup, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Pew have found a general increase in willingness to be vaccinated for the disease, from around 50% of Americans last summer to over 60% in December.
But a survey by the National Association of Health Care Assistants has shown that a surprising and worrisome 72% of certified nursing assistants say they do not want to be vaccinated because of safety concerns over the rapidly developed vaccines and their possible side effects. That points to a potential major weakness in the campaign to inoculate residents and staff of nursing homes, which have been particularly hard hit by the virus. For the campaign to be successful, nursing assistants and other front-line health care workers must be thoroughly educated and reassured about the risks and benefits of being inoculated.
Herd immunity occurs when enough of a population is immune to a virus that its outbreak is limited and controllable. Unfortunately, no one knows yet how much that is in the case of COVID-19.
The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says that, depending on the disease, herd immunity occurs when somewhere between 50% and 90% of a population is inoculated.
Dr, Anthony Fauci has acknowledged that he has been upping his estimate of this target, from around 70% to a more robust 85% or 90%. To some Americans, this is evidence that Dr. Fauci is moving the goalposts and is not to be trusted. We see it as an honest if perhaps shortsighted attempt to ease Americans into the reality while persuading them to take the vaccine as a civic duty.
The skepticism about Dr. Fauci’s advice illustrates an important point about the need for a carefully thought-out vaccination campaign.
This year has taught an indelible lesson about the difficulty of persuading Americans to follow official rules and guidelines without first clearly explaining the risks and trade-offs. In the case of COVID-19, the consequences have been huge. But they also have been different for different folks, leading to a wide range of behavior. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show healthy people under age 45 have a small risk of dying from the disease, but above that age, the risk rises steeply.
People age 75 and over are 200 times more likely to die from this coronavirus than the average person. For those over 85, the risk is 600 times greater.
While the risk for healthy people under 45 is small, the economic effects of measures to contain the disease have been very large, and have fallen disproportionately on lower-income workers and small business owners. In some communities, many more people have been hurt by the economic effects than by the disease.
That gives weight to the argument that mass vaccination will allow people to return to their normal lives and jobs much sooner. But they still have to be convinced it is worth the risk of potential side effects.
A successful vaccination campaign needs to be more sensitive to individual points of view than the official efforts to stem the disease have been in many places. You can’t simply order people to take the shots. You have to convince them of the need. And the same approach will not work for everyone.
The Guardian on Covid policy and the relationship between the four nations of the United Kingdom:
The Covid year has intensified potentially terminal strains within the UK’s four-nation union. When Boris Johnson began to grapple with the seriousness of the outbreak, the impact on the union was probably low on his list of concerns. But, as 2021 beckons, Mr Johnson’s approach to Covid has become a catalyst of the possible breakup of the United Kingdom. Covid’s most lasting political legacy in these islands may be that, in its aftermath, the UK will no longer exist.
When the pandemic began, Mr Johnson seemed to assume that he was acting for the whole of the UK. He gradually discovered that, as far as Covid was concerned, this was untrue. In practice, he was the prime minister only of England. Health policy had been devolved since 1919 in Scotland, and has been under the control of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since Tony Blair’s era. And since all three devolved nations and most English cities were led by non-Conservative politicians with their own views of how to deal with Covid in their areas, and with no love for Mr Johnson’s politics in most cases, coronavirus decision-making has struggled to reach a consensus, to the general detriment.
Mr Johnson bears heavy responsibility for this. But a second reason was that Scotland’s nationalist government, which wants to break up the UK, brilliantly seized an opportunity to emphasise its control of Covid policy. The Scottish National party first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, began regular Covid briefings on 20 March. She has since done more than 150 of them. Her briefings have mostly been models of factual accuracy, sensible advice and caution. The contrast with Mr Johnson’s intermittent and sometimes hyperbolic and error-strewn briefings has been in every way to Ms Sturgeon’s political advantage. Last month, an Ipsos Mori poll found that Ms Sturgeon had a net approval rating of plus 61 among Scots for her handling of the pandemic, while Mr Johnson had a net rating of minus 43. There has been majority support in Scotland for breaking away from the UK in 17 successive opinion polls.
The combination of Ms Sturgeon’s high profile and the realities of health policy devolution has had consequences in Wales and Northern Ireland, and even at English local level too. Mark Drakeford has not attempted to emulate his Scottish counterpart’s daily control of the media message. But the Welsh first minister has also followed his own distinctive path, taking some radically different and more cautious decisions, and acquiring in the course of the pandemic a higher public profile, in and outside Wales, than his predecessors. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing means its first minister, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist party, has to share a platform with her opponent, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, and is therefore unable to achieve a similar ascendancy. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland, like Wales and Scotland, has at times very publicly diverged from English measures. Mr Johnson’s lazy libertarianism and shameful lateness to act have few echoes outside England.
Covid could now be the straw that breaks the union’s back, especially in Scotland. But Covid policy is not the main reason why the future of the union is now so uncertain. Many other factors lie behind this crisis. The most important is simply the sustained ascendancy of the SNP in Scotland. If the party wins a fourth successive Holyrood victory in May and claims a mandate for a new independence referendum, it would send the union’s stress level into the critical zone. If Scotland eventually broke away, there would be major consequences in Northern Ireland, and for the relationship between Wales and England.
Brexit has played a pivotal role in creating this volatile mix. The vote in 2016 to leave the European Union was an English and Welsh vote. Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted to leave. Scotland, in particular, voted decisively to remain. Yet after 2016, neither Theresa May nor Mr Johnson paid enough attention to easing the pain for Scotland. UK brinkmanship in this year’s trade talks with the EU has made an already large gap between the UK and Scotland even wider. The EU27’s unity during the talks contrasted with the UK4’s internal disunity. Brexit’s impact in Northern Ireland has also been profound, resulting in a deepened close economic relationship with the Irish Republic, and thus the EU single market, while Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill pull in opposing directions over the link with Britain.
When Mr Johnson became prime minister in 2019, he gave himself the title of “minister for the union”. There has been zero evidence in his handling of Brexit that he takes this to mean the adoption of a more emollient approach. Instead, Mr Johnson’s unionism has proved more centralist and less pragmatic than the unionism of his two Tory predecessors, David Cameron and Mrs May. To Mr Johnson, the Brexit slogan of “take back control” translates into a project that aims to rebuild a Westminster-centred UK sovereignty, not, as Keir Starmer advocated last week, a policy of pushing more powers out and down from Westminster to the UK nations or to English regions and cities.
Mr Johnson’s approach is creating a crash waiting to happen. He made his real views startlingly clear when he told a private meeting of the “blue wall” Conservative MPs in November that devolution had been “a disaster north of the border” and that the 1997 devolution settlement was Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake”. Coming six months before such important Holyrood elections, this was an incendiary thing to say, as well as a self-inflicted wound for the Tories and a Christmas gift to the SNP. Mr Johnson’s comments about a devolution disaster cannot be laughed away as an idiosyncratic Johnsonian accident. The comments expressed what he really thinks.
The early months of 2021 will continue to be dominated by Covid. But the imminent existential crisis for the union should not be overlooked. Mr Johnson appears confident that he can successfully refuse to authorise a second referendum in the face of a demand for one from Ms Sturgeon. But there may not be as much appetite for undemocratic obduracy as he supposes.
If Mr Johnson was a different kind of politician, he would listen to what Mr Starmer said last week about renewing the union, or what Gordon Brown has been saying about rebuilding consent through citizens’ assemblies with a wide remit to reimagine Britain’s constitutional arrangements. A lot of politicians from all parties, including the Conservatives, are open to this. The big question is whether the voters of Scotland are open to it too. But there is little time left. The chance of reform may have sailed with Brexit. The task of offering Scots an alternative union that they can believe in next May is already down to the wire.
The New York Times on nursing home visitation:
When she had the routine of home, Angie Sinopoli was the talkative matriarch of a large Italian family who heaped praise on her children and grandchildren, even as her memory faded. Her youngest son, Steven, came by her house and cooked her dinner nearly every night. But after a couple of falls and bouts in rehabilitation centers, she ended up in a Syracuse nursing home on March 10. Two days later, it stopped all visits to protect residents from the coronavirus. Mrs. Sinopoli hasn’t seen family in more than nine months. Her vocabulary has dwindled to about 20 words.
Early in the pandemic, the ban on visitors in nursing homes was understandable. It was vital. More than 35% of coronavirus deaths in the United States have been linked to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. But as the pandemic drags on, and as nursing home patients get vaccinated, strict prohibitions on visits are taking an unnecessary toll on patients, particularly those with dementia who rely on routines and familiar faces to ground them.
Chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by about 20%, according to the 2008 book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.” The stress hormones that come from feeling socially isolated can have as serious an impact on the human body as smoking or obesity, presenting such a public health crisis that the British government appointed a minister for loneliness in 2017. For elderly people who struggle to hear and see on phone and video calls, the loneliness of nursing homes could feel overwhelming even before the pandemic set in.
Social isolation because of the coronavirus in nursing homes has increased depression, weight loss and other forms of physical deterioration, especially for Alzheimer’s patients, who often need more help than understaffed centers can provide.
“We’ve lost part of the long-term care work force by restricting families,” Dr. Sheryl Zimmerman, co-director of the Program on Aging, Disability and Long-Term Care at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the School of Social Work, said in an email. “Sure, the risk of spreading COVID-19 (or any other infectious disease) is less when visitors are restricted, but the consequence of social detachment may be greater, and this is a serious risk: we’ve known for more than 40 years that isolation increases death.”
Families play an important role in the routine care of patients in long-term care homes, which often include feeding, grooming and encouraging mental and physical exercise. Since the pandemic began, at least five states have expanded access for “compassionate care” visitors who are allowed in even when the general public is kept at bay. Minnesota eased restrictions on visits over the summer after medical examiners began listing “COVID-19 social isolation” as a cause of death or a contributing factor for patients in long-term care centers.
In New York, State Senator Rachel May, head of the Committee on Aging, filed a bill in September after hearing from hundreds of constituents who were beside themselves with grief and worry after months of being blocked from seeing loved ones. At a hearing that inspired the legislation, the mother of a 9-year-old boy in a pediatric nursing home facility testified about the child’s decline after he went months without a visit from the mother, who used to read to and play with him.
“We are seeing actual deaths as a result of the isolation,” said Dr. May, whose Ph.D. is in Russian language and literature.
Current guidelines for New York issued by the Department of Health allow limited visits in facilities that have had no coronavirus case for at least 14 days. But that hasn’t helped the family of Mrs. Sinopoli, who is in the Bishop Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, a 440-bed facility that has not been coronavirus-free for the required length of time since the start of the pandemic, partly because it accepted coronavirus patients to lighten the load of hospitals. Although New York law specifies that virtual visits be allowed, the state’s guidelines for in-person visits are seen as more stringent than those issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency that sets standards for many nursing homes.
Those national guidelines have allowed for “compassionate care” visits since the beginning of the pandemic, but the term was widely interpreted as referring to special visitation for patients on the verge of death. In September, the agency issued a clarification that “compassionate care” visits could also be used for patients in other situations, such as those who recently transitioned to a nursing home and have been traumatized by the sudden lack of family contact. The national guidelines also suggested that more outdoor visits could be held if space and weather permitted.
Supporters of “compassionate care” legislation say asymptomatic staff members who work at more than one center — not visitors — have been the main driving force behind nursing home outbreaks. In New York, visitors are required to show proof of a recent negative test.
The current version of the bill expires with this legislative session on Dec. 31, but Dr. May said she intended to refile it in the new session. It probably has enough bipartisan support to pass.
If it passes, the Department of Health would have 120 days to develop regulations to allow families to designate one visitor per patient to assist with “mental, physical, or social well-being” if a medical health professional deems such visits necessary. The bill made sense in September, when it was filed with the support of AARP New York. It makes even more sense now. The only downside is that waiting an additional 120 days feels excruciating to people like Steven Sinopoli.
The good news is that Mrs. Sinopoli has just gotten her first vaccine shot, raising hopes that a safe visit may soon be possible. On Christmas Day, Mr. Sinopoli dropped off some photographs for his mother at the nursing home. The nurse who brought them to her texted him afterward and told him that his mother held onto the pictures and would not let go.
The Wall Street Journal on the COVID-19 relief bill:
President Trump finally signed the Covid-19 relief bill and 2021 budget on Sunday night, but not before giving a big assist to Democratic hopes of gaining control of the Senate in the two runoff elections on Jan. 5. Current GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is left this week trying to undo the significant political damage.
Mr. Trump had been insisting that Congress write checks of $2,000 each to most Americans, rather than the $600 in the bill. His own Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, negotiated the $600 figure. But after the bill passed, Mr. Trump decided that wasn’t enough.
Never mind that the $2,000 would go to tens of millions of Americans who have kept their jobs and maintained their incomes during the pandemic. It would also add some $350 billion or more to a federal deficit that is already into the trillions of dollars. The economy won’t benefit since the recipients aren’t going to change their behavior knowing it’s merely a one-time check.
Senate Republicans oppose the $2,000 for these sound reasons, but Mr. Trump has put them in a political spot. Democrats immediately joined Mr. Trump’s call for the $2,000, and on Monday they passed the larger amount through the House, 275-134.
That leaves Mr. McConnell with a tough call of barring a vote as Democrats bang away in TV ads in Georgia against GOP incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Or he can hold a vote, which would split the GOP caucus and upset fiscally conservative voters. Either way it amounts to a Donald Trump in-kind contribution to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden.
By all accounts Mr. Trump is angry about his election defeat, and he is lashing out at anyone who won’t indulge his hopeless campaign to overturn it. This includes Senate Republicans, who need to win in Georgia to retain their majority and block Mr. Biden’s ability to indulge the Democratic left.
Mr. Trump’s narcissism isn’t news. But if Republicans lose the two Georgia seats and their majority, Republicans across the country should know to thank Mr. Trump for their 2021 tax increase.
The Houston Chronicle on those who opposed President Donald Trump’s administration:
They were fired, demoted or passed over in their jobs. Their lives and the well-being of their families were threatened. They faced harassment on the streets and savage attacks on social media.
Their offense? They chose to stand for democracy and the rule of law over the corrupt demands and machinations of President Donald Trump.
As the curtain falls on Trump’s presidency, despite his best efforts, and America begins looking ahead to new leadership, we should pause to honor those who refused to yield their principles to political pressure and intimidation.
It’s a long list: members of his administration, career public servants, volunteer poll workers, state and federal election officials, judges and others who chose to do the right thing in the face of immense pressure from a president who never shied away from savaging his critics or any who failed to offer perfect loyalty. Together, these Americans stood up to Trump and were loyal instead to the law and to the Constitution. By doing so, they brought to light some of his more outrageous misconduct and thwarted his worst impulses.
The honor roll can begin with former Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who blew the whistle on Trump’s threat to withhold already approved military aid to Ukraine in exchange for the “favor” of its president announcing an investigation into political opponent Joe Biden. Vindman never backed down from the truth in the face of withering partisan criticism and congressional questioning during impeachment hearings.
Vindman was fired as the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council and was eventually forced to retire from the Army he had faithfully served for 21 years. Not even his twin brother, Lt. Col. Eugene Vindman, who was not connected to the controversy, escaped vindictive punishment. He was fired from his job as an NSC lawyer at the White House.
They lost their jobs, but not their honor. We thank both brothers, sons of political refugees who had fled the Soviet Union, for their loyal service to their adopted country.
Trump’s extortion scheme also brought public attention to Marie Yovanovitch, who had tirelessly battled political corruption as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine before being unceremoniously removed when the White House saw her as a threat to its political plotting.
Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s top Russia expert, both provided powerful testimony at the congressional impeachment hearings in the face of death threats and at the risk of their professional careers.
The Republican-controlled Senate ultimately voted to acquit Trump of the impeachment charges, but the actions of Vindman, Yovanovitch, Hill and others drew a clear line between right and wrong and no doubt curtailed even greater offenses.
Many would wish to write these patriots off as career bureaucrats, but our nation should honor their dedication to the rules and norms that have preserved our democracy as a beacon for the rest of the world.
Their courage stands in contrast to the vast majority of Trump’s fellow Republican officeholders. Those few who initially spoke out against his excesses soon left public life or learned to keep their mouths shut. Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee are two clear examples. But some chose to stay in public life — and were not afraid to stand up to the president. The late Sen. John McCain was one such leader, and Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Bob Sasse of Nebraska are two others. “This is rotten to the core,” Sasse said as word of Trump’s self-dealing pardons spread Christmas week.
Others who went along for far too long with Trump’s worst instincts eventually found their voice. And while “hero” seems hardly appropriate, given how tardy their voices have been, they have done the nation a service by speaking out. Chris Christie and even Mitch McConnell have at long last discovered even they have limits that Trump’s wild narcissism has exceeded.
Nowhere have those limits been tested more severely than in the crucible of the 2020 presidential election. Some heroes have responded with courage to stand against partisan criticism and harsh disapproval to do what the law and justice require.
Gabriel Sterling, a voting system official in Georgia, not only confirmed the validity of Biden’s victory in that state but called out the president and other Republican leaders for failing to condemn threats of violence against election workers who were doing their jobs under the most stressful of circumstances.
Sterling was reacting part to reports that Joe diGenova, a lawyer for the Trump campaign, had said that Christopher Krebs, a federal cybersecurity official, “should be drawn and quartered. Taken out at dawn and shot” because he had vouched for the integrity of the election.
Sterling and his boss, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, were facing death threats of themselves and their families for refusing Trump’s demands to overturn the election results.
“This is elections,” Sterling said at an emotional press conference. “This is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It’s too much.”
These quiet acts of courage stand in vibrant contrast to the failure of the president and so many of his supporters to speak out against hateful rhetoric as they continue to pressure officials to violate their oaths and their consciences to subvert the will of the people.
We honor Aaron Van Langevelde, a 40-year old Republican appointee to Michigan’s board of state election canvassers, who resisted incredible pressure from the president and his party to deny Biden’s 150,000-vote victory in that pivotal state.
“We must not attempt to exercise power we simply don’t have,” Van Langevelde said before casting the deciding vote to accept the election results. “As John Adams once said, we are a government of laws, not men. This board needs to adhere to that principle here today. This board must do its part to uphold the rule of law and comply with our legal duty to certify this election.”
Attacked on social media and requiring police protection at his home, Van Langevelde lived up to the principles on which the nation was founded.
Our democracy survived one of the gravest threats in recent memory because individuals showed the courage to do the right thing. It’s a lesson we shouldn’t forget.
The Chicago Tribune on the year 2020:
A spent year expires, and so does its four-digit quip. Those who mumbled “2020” as their exasperated commentary on the year’s parade of horribles, oddities and bad breaks now must find a new wisecrack.
Yes, 2020 brought terrible frustrations, some of them lethal. We’ve written about them at great length, often to share compassion and condolence with those who’ve suffered incalculable losses. More than 325,000 deaths in the United States were COVID-19-related this year. Loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes struggled with illnesses often alone. Business owners and hospitality workers suffered many sleepless nights, worried about their livelihoods, their families, their responsibilities.
But a new year is upon us. Let us allow a sliver of optimism to carry us into 2021, a year that deserves its own chance — and perspective. Because whatever challenges it has in store, this moment in history can still be embraced as a best time to be alive.
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