This Latina teen says the pandemic will mark her generation — and shape her vote

This Latina teen says the pandemic will mark her generation — and shape her vote

By
Max Rivlin-Nadler

Player utilities

download

Listen to the story.

Marlene Herrera, 18, is a first-time voter in San Diego County. 

Credit:

Adriana Heldiz/The World

Share

This story is part of “Every 30 Seconds,” a collaborative public media reporting project tracing the young Latino electorate leading up to the 2020 presidential election and beyond.

“Dale, dale, dale no pierdas el tino …”

About 20 friends and family members surround Marlene Herrera in her aunt’s yard in northern San Diego County. They’re mostly social distancing. The crowd sings in Spanish, urging her to not lose momentum. 

“Go, go, go, don’t lose your aim …”

Herrera wears a graduation cap and gown and swings a bat at two piñatas in the shapes of the numbers one and eight. She’s celebrating her 18th birthday and her high school graduation. Both events fell the week San Diego county began to relax its coronavirus restrictions on gatherings.

Finally, the piñatas break from their strings. The crowd cheers. 

Like many teenagers, Herrera has worked through a lot of frustration over the past few months. First, the pandemic hit. Then, she had to complete her senior year from home. During that time, she’s been living in a crowded house with five cousins under the age of nine, along with her younger sister, mother, and aunt. It’s hard to find space for herself or to do her work. 

In this new reality, Herrera said, she and many of her friends feel powerless. She’s been thinking a lot about mental health — and when she starts college this fall at San Francisco State University, she plans to major in psychology. 

“A lot of us were like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’” she said of the pandemic. “A lot of us got to the point where we burst into tears when we were picking up our cap and gowns. Even my mom, she was crying. She told us, ‘This is not what I expected for you, what I planned for you.’”

Related: Coronavirus upended her family. But this Latina teen is determined to make her vote count.

The mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic will be felt for years — especially by young adults, according to experts. And the stress they experience will impact their political behavior in the US presidential election this November, and for elections to come. 

“We’re going to be paying for this for a long time, because of the betrayals or the feelings of being left behind. Those are going to last for people.”

Tina Casola, family therapist

“We’re going to be paying for this for a long time, because of the betrayals or the feelings of being left behind,” said Tina Casola, a San Diego-based family therapist who specializes in trauma and the long-term impacts of stress. “Those are going to last for people.”

For Herrera, the pandemic means no graduation ceremony. No prom. After her preferred presidential candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, dropped out of the race in April, she was undecided on who she would vote for in November. But with the protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other acts of police violence against Black men and women, Herrera says she’s made up her mind.  

“I think I’m leaning towards Biden,” she said in a whisper. “Not that I’m entirely happy with him either.”

To her, President Donald Trump crossed a line when he sent in the National Guard during the Black Lives Matter protests. 

“You’re just adding to the fire. You’re fighting fire with fire. How is that OK?” she said. “I want a change.”

Related: Can Biden turn out Latinos to vote? Advocacy groups aren’t sure.

A pile-on of stress — and bills

Meanwhile, the stress piles on. Due to the pandemic, Herrera’s mother was briefly laid off this spring from her job at a law office. With many family members now living under one roof, the stimulus check her mother received from the government was a huge help. 

“It’s a big family here. We needed that,” Herrera said. “Especially the kids, because they are small. They have a very big appetite and a very fast metabolism.”

Her mother was eventually rehired after her office got a government loan. Still, Herrera wishes federal and local governments had done more during the stay-at-home order to prepare businesses to reopen safely. 

“For us, you can’t afford to not work,” she said. “We still gotta pay rent. That’s not going to stop. You can’t stop paying for food. You can’t just stay home. I don’t want to come home and be the one that infects my family for some reason.”

While young people in Herrera’s age group — known as Generation Z — are far more supportive of one another than previous generations, Casola said, they’re still looking to older people as models on how to get through the crisis brought on by the pandemic. 

“We have to figure out ways of getting into our communities and giving them support during this time. Even though none of us have the answer. We don’t have a blueprint for this,” Casola said. “But they need to benefit from some of the seasoning that we’ve had, in order to pull these things together and be able take care of themselves.” 

The pandemic and its mental health toll are not the only things on Herrera’s mind. 

She grew up always worried about her family’s finances. She also grew up in San Diego, a US-Mexico border region. And as a Latina from a low-income family, Herrera feels tremendous pressure from the US government. Though Herrera’s family members are all US citizens, the heavy presence of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, along with uncertainty surrounding friends without permanent immigration statuses, have influenced her political perspective. 

“I just don’t want a government that is working against me. Like, I don’t want to feel like I’m fighting the government. They should be there for me.”

Marlene Herrera, 18, first-time voter

“Not even from a Mexican point of view, just talking as a person of color point of view. There’s been so much oppression we’ve had. And we’re seeing it right now,” she said, referring to the government’s response to protests against police brutality. “I just don’t want a government that is working against me. Like, I don’t want to feel like I’m fighting the government. They should be there for me.”

According to Casola, life as a Latina in a border town can both narrow one’s worldview, by limiting access to outside perspectives, and make it seem like this type of pressure is typical elsewhere in the country.

“Living in San Diego, it’s definitely different than if we go to other places and we have conversations about that,” she said. “Perspectives are so important.” 

The government’s response — or lack of response — to the pandemic has Herrera thinking about how politics directly impact her life. 

“As much as people want to say Trump is good, and that he did all these changes and I’m grateful for any changes he’s made, I think it’s time for someone new,” she said. “You can’t be living in the time of like, oh my God, what is he going to do now. What’s he tweeting? We’ve had so many scares with him.”

Looking ahead to a long summer of helping take care of her cousins and trying to safely see friends when she can, Herrera thought about what she would change about this year if she had a magic wand. 

“We didn’t get a graduation, we never got a normal graduation ceremony. No one got to get their yearbooks signed either. The last hurrah — you’re not going to get that.”

Marlene Herrera, 18, first-time voter

“Just my senior year,” she said. “We didn’t get a graduation, we never got a normal graduation ceremony. No one got to get their yearbooks signed either. The last hurrah — you’re not going to get that.”

Herrera thinks missing prom, not having a chance to say goodbye to her classmates, and facing deeply uncertain job prospects will forever mark her generation. 

Still, she was happy with what she could piece back together over the last few weeks. After her joint birthday-graduation party, Herrera said the best part of the day was finally being with her family and friends again in one place.

“It’s been over two months. I was like, ‘I get to see you again, I get to hug you. Wait, are you OK with hugging?’” she said, laughing.

Malawians vote for president (again) amid pandemic 

Malawians vote for president (again) amid pandemic 

By
Halima Gikandi

Player utilities

download

Listen to the story.

A Malawian woman waits to vote in a rerun of a discredited presidential election in Thyolo, Malawi, June 23, 2020. 

Credit:

Ernest Mwale/Reuters 

Share

As countries around the world debate how to move forward with national elections amid the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Malawians head to the polls on Tuesday to vote for president —  again. 

Related: Coronavirus exposes Sudan’s broken health care system

Earlier this year, the country’s constitutional court nullified the results of its presidential election in May 2019, when incumbent President Peter Mutharika narrowly won another term in office.

Malawians took to the streets to protest the results and reelection of Mutharika, who has been in office since 2014.

The opposition, led by candidate Lazarus Chakwera, took the matter to court last year, citing widespread irregularities.

“The court even says let’s nullify the elections because there were vast irregularities that affected the will of the people.”

Tadala Peggy Chinkwezule, president, Women Lawyers Association of Malawi

“The irregularities ranged from the use of different tally sheets [to] the correction of errors,” said Tadala Peggy Chinkwezule, president of the Women Lawyers Association of Malawi.

“The court even says let’s nullify the elections because there were vast irregularities that affected the will of the people,” Chinkwezule said.

In February 2020, in a 500-page ruling, the courts took a rare step to nullify the elections, ordering a new one within 150 days. They determined that candidates running for office would need at least 50% plus one of the votes. 

Voters like Jane Mtika, a party vendor in the capital city of Lilongwe, appreciate the second chance at a fair vote. She plans to vote for Chakwera, who is now backed by a coalition of eight opposition parties and is running on improving the economy and bringing jobs to Malawians.

“I hope Chakwera and Chirima will do whatever they can for us business service providers,” she said, arguing that the coronavirus pandemic and countrywide lockdown has worsened poverty and hunger.

“We are now starving, we don’t have money. We are just staying at home. Our workers are at their homes. That’s not good,” said Mtika, who first spoke about her struggles to The World back in April.

Related: Libyans are caught between coronavirus and conflict 

Boniface Dulani, a political scientist at the University of Malawi, says many Malawians are fed up with the leadership of President Mutharika, whose time in office has been marred by corruption scandals.

“The economy is certainly in a very, very bad and very fragile state. Our dependence on agriculture in times of increasing drought remains a big challenge.”

Boniface Dulani, political scientist, The University of Malawi

“The economy is certainly in a very, very bad and very fragile state. Our dependence on agriculture in times of increasing drought remains a big challenge,” Dulani said.

The election rerun also hasn’t been without its challenges and controversies.

“Apart from the logistical issues, including ballots, there are also other issues related to the financing of the election. The government has been quite reluctant to release funds to the electoral commission,” Dulani said.

In recent years, recurring droughts and natural disasters have contributed to food insecurity in Malawi. More than 50% of the country lives below the national poverty line.

Related: After Cyclone Idai, governments struggle to secure recovery funds

Chifundo Kachale, the new election commissioner tasked with managing the election, was only appointed two weeks ago. Voting ballots printed abroad only arrived in the country on Friday.

The pandemic has also brought worries that the large campaign crowds and election could lead to a spike in the coronavirus in a country that has so far seemed to manage the relatively few cases. 

It has also prevented outside election observers from entering the country. Still, lawyers like Chinwezule say they will be at the polls to make sure things are on the right track.

Meet the young Latino voters of ‘Every 30 Seconds’

Meet the young Latino voters of 'Every 30 Seconds'

Approximately every 30 seconds, a Latino in the US turns 18. Young Latinos could swing the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election — if they come out to vote.

By
The World staff

Player utilities

download

Listen to the story.

Clockwise, starting from the top left: Jacob Cuenca, Michelle Aguilar Ramirez, Brayan Guevara, Leticia Arcila, Adela Diaz, Izcan Ordaz, Yaneilys Ayuso and Marlene Herrera will vote for US president for the first time in the 2020 elections.

Credit:

Graphic by Maria Elena Romero/The World

Share

A record 32 million people who identify as Latino will be eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election in November, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s just over 13% of the US electorate — surpassing eligible black voters for the first time and making Latinos the nation’s largest voter group after whites.

Latinos’ massive growth as a voting bloc is largely driven by youth coming of age. Approximately every 30 seconds, a Latino in the US turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote. Young Latinos could swing the outcome of the election — if they come out to vote. 

Every 30 Seconds” is a collaborative public media project led by The World that follows eight young Latino voters in different corners of the United States, reporting on the issues, concerns and challenges driving Latino decisionmaking and turnout for this election. 

These are their stories.

Yaneilys Ayuso, 18

For “Pink” Ayuso, one of the 3.1 million eligible Latino voters in Florida, the pandemic has underscored how difficult it is for immigrants in Miami — and across the country — to access health care.

Credit:

Jayme Gershen/The World

Yaneilys Ayuso, who just finished high school, grew up in the Miami neighborhood of Wynwood. 

Ayuso, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, identifies as non-binary. They have bright red hair that they call “Ariel mermaid hair” and wear huge hoop earrings and bulky pink glasses. Because of that, they go by the nickname Pink.

Until the coronavirus pandemic forced Ayuso to shelter in place, they spent much of the last year trying to encourage Florida youth to get involved in politics — canvassing and organizing get-out-the-vote parties.

Issues of interest: LGBTQ rights, Cuban and Puerto Rican issues and immigration

Read more: Pandemic makes social justice issues more personal for this young Florida voter

Izcan Ordaz, 18

Izcan Ordaz, who describes himself as more of a centrist in politics, says Texas conservatism has influenced him. He says his parents are more liberal than he is. Nearly 40% of Texas’ population is Latino, and about one in three eligible voters is Latino.

Credit:

Ben Torres/The World

Izcan Ordaz, who just finished his senior year of high school, lives with his parents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Ordaz, a second-generation Mexican American, leans more conservative on some issues compared to his parents, who supported Bernie Sanders and are concerned about President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration.

Until the coronavirus hit, Ordaz says he was primarily concerned with the cost of college and student loans. Now, he’s far more worried about the US economy and job insecurity — especially as the November election nears.

Ordaz says for now, he plans to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Issues of interest: Access to higher education, the economy, the conservative vote

Read more: This Latino teen voter worries about prom, graduation — and the economy

Adela Diaz, 18

Adela Diaz, part of Arizonas rapidly growing Latino population, says the coronavirus pandemic has brought a new urgency to her major, public health. Nearly a quarter of all eligible voters in Arizona are Latino, according to the Pew Research Center.

Credit:

Ash Ponders/The World

Adela Diaz, a college freshman studying public health at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is a second-generation Mexican American. She initially wanted to vote for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who dropped out of the race for the Democratic Party nominee. 

As the presidential campaign unfolds, Diaz is keeping an eye on one main issue: health care. She’s interested in the lack of health care access in minority communities — which is now magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.

Issues of interest: Health care disparities among Latinos, education, college access and affordability

Read more: The top issue for one Arizona first-time voter? Health care.

Brayan Guevara, 19

As an Afro Latino with roots in Honduras, Brayan Guevara straddles two groups whose votes candidates are fighting to capture: Latinos and blacks. Guevara wants to make sure his voice is heard at the ballot box. 

Credit:

Lynn Hey/The World

Brayan Guevara, a sophomore at Guilford Technical Community College in Greensboro, North Carolina, is a first-generation Honduran American who wants to become a teacher.

Guevara, who grew up in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, says his Afro Latino identity means everything to him. He feels candidates are vying for the black and Latino votes separately. He’s still trying to figure out how being Afro Latino, an identity he did not recognize until later in his life, shapes his political views.

Guevara is a registered Independent and undecided voter.

Issues of interest: Access to education, identity 

Read more: This first-time Afro Latino voter is undecided. His top issue? Education.

Leticia Arcila, 20

Leticia Arcila, a 20-year-old voter in Atlanta, Georgia, said health care is her top priority in a presidential candidate.

Credit:

Courtesy of Leticia Arcila

Leticia Arcila, a first-generation Mexican American, worked as a home health care worker before the pandemic hit.

Currently, Arcila, who comes from a family of mixed immigration status, doesn’t have health insurance. She lost her job due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Arcila’s parents are undocumented, and their application for US residency is pending. The decision will impact what happens to Leticia’s young sister, who has epilepsy. Their parents’ deportation could mean Arcila would have to take custody of her younger siblings. 

Issues of interest: Access to health care, immigration

Read more: For this young Latina voter, pandemic highlights the need for ‘Medicare for All’

Marlene Herrera, 17

Marlene Herrera is an undecided voter in California, a state where Latinos overwhelmingly support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who recently dropped out of the presidential race.

Credit:

Adriana Heldiz/The World

Marlene Herrera, who just finished high school and lives in California, is on track to be the first person in her family to attend college this fall. She plans to study psychology at San Francisco State University. The third-generation Mexican American has a big question in her mind: How will she pay for it? 

Herrera is interested in how the US health care system will address the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Her top concern is how her uninsured family members will get access to health care. 

Those concerns are shaping how Herrera views the 2020 presidential election campaign. She initially considered voting for Democratic candidate Andrew Yang. Then she leaned toward Bernie Sanders, but after he dropped out of the race, she remains undecided.

Issues of interest: College access and affordability, health care access, US economy

Related: Coronavirus upended her family. But this Latina teen is determined to make her vote count.

Michelle Aguilar Ramirez, 17

Like many young Latinos in Seattle, Michelle Aguilar Ramirez leans Democrat. But she says she feels disenchanted by the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Credit:

Jovelle Tamayo/The World

Michelle Aguilar Ramirez, who just completed her junior year of high school, is a first-generation Guatemalan American who lives in Kent, Washington. 

Aguilar worries how the pandemic will affect her family — particularly her mother, who is undocumented.

The coronavirus pandemic has only underscored the positive changes she wants to see for her family. Michelle, like most kids her age, is learning from home as schools remain closed. But she struggles to connect with her professors or classmates and keep track of her work deadlines. Every day feels eerily the same since she’s been isolating. 

Like many young Latinos in Seattle, Aguilar Ramirez leans toward the Democratic Party. But she feels disenchanted by the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Issues of interest: Climate change, immigration, mental health

Read more: Pandemic stress overshadows US election for this young Latina voter

Jacob Cuenca, 18

Jacob Cuenca, 18, is a registered Republican in Florida with misgivings about voting for US President Donald Trump in November. In a swing state as important as Florida, decisions made by young Latino voters like Cuenca could determine the entire election outcome.

Credit:

Jayme Gershen/The World

Jacob Cuenca, who just finished high school, is a registered Republican who lives outside of Miami, Florida. He planned to cast his first vote this November for President Donald Trump.

But three months into the coronavirus pandemic, the government’s response has not lived up to his expectations. Now, Cuenca finds himself torn between who he sees as two candidates he calls “incompetent”: Biden and Trump.

Cuenca’s mother is a Mexican American Democrat. His father, who is Cuban American, voted for Trump and leans more conservative. Cuenca says he came to espouse more conservative political beliefs through his own research and experiences. 

Issues of interest: Conservative vote, US response to the coronavirus pandemic

Read more: Trump’s pandemic response has this conservative Latino teen voter considering Biden
​​​​​​​

Pandemic stress overshadows US election for this young Latina voter

Pandemic stress overshadows US election for this young Latina voter

By
Esmy Jimenez

Player utilities

download

Listen to the story.

Michelle Aguilar Ramirez, 17, is a a young Latina in Washington state who will vote for the first time in November. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Michelle Aguilar Ramirez

Share

This story is part of “Every 30 Seconds,” a collaborative public media reporting project tracing the young Latino electorate leading up to the 2020 presidential election and beyond.

The “new normal” is uncomfortable for Michelle Aguilar Ramirez, and countless other young people who are self-isolating because of the coronavirus pandemic. She’s a 17-year old Guatemalan American high school junior in Kent, Washington.

Washington state was initially the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the US. Now, as cases have declined, officials are moving toward reopening certain areas of the state. 

Related: How a trip to Honduras shaped one young US Afro Latino voter’s identity

For Aguilar Ramirez, the last two months of the stay-at-home orders have been slow and challenging.

“Staying in quarantine has really messed with my mental health,” she said. “I haven’t had the opportunity to socialize with other individuals except for the people I live with. I haven’t had the opportunity to really feel happy, in a way.” 

The distractions of spending all her waking hours in a crowded house while adjusting to taking her classes online have kept Aguilar Ramirez from staying up-to-date with the presidential election in November. It will be the first time she will be eligible to vote.

Related: Coronavirus upended her family. But this Latina teen is determined to make her vote count.

“I’m not keeping myself posted with all the news that’s coming out, whether it’s political, or whether it’s about the elections. Because it’s just draining and overwhelming.”

Michelle Aguilar Ramire, 17, first-time voter in November

“I’m not keeping myself posted with all the news that’s coming out, whether it’s political, or whether it’s about the elections,” she said. “Because it’s just draining and overwhelming.”

She’s not the only one that feels that way. Attention to the US election has waned — and with good reason. For now, young people like Aguilar Ramirez are worried about more immediate and pressing concerns such as making rent, their health and what their futures hold. 

“I’ll probably start keeping myself posted on certain [news], but as of now, I could care less about that because I’m just busy with my own things with my mental health, my physical health and with academics,” she said. “I know that’s bad on my behalf. But that’s the best that I can do.” 

Related: This Latino teen voter worries about prom, graduation — and the economy

While in quarantine, she has continued to take Running Start college courses and her high school classes online. 

“I honestly truly hate it,” she said of her virtual classroom. “I don’t know how much I can express how much I hate digital learning.” 

Her internet connection at home isn’t strong, so she struggles to connect with her professors or classmates over Zoom, the videoconferencing app. It’s also hard to keep track of her work deadlines. 

Every day feels eerily the same since she’s been isolating. And when it’s not the Wi-Fi going down, it’s distractions from her family. 

“I don’t have a specific space where I can do my homework at peace with no noise whatsoever,” Aguilar Ramirez said. She lives with eight other people at home — including extended family. 

“Anytime in the day everyone is watching TV, there’s an Xbox, there’s like YouTube going on on the tablet or Fortnite,” she said. “So much noise!” 

To listen to the full story, click the play button in the audio player above. 

Prior exposure to air pollution increases risk of death from COVID-19, new research suggests

Prior exposure to air pollution increases risk of death from COVID-19, new research suggests

Writer
Adam Wernick

Player utilities

download

Listen to the story.

Los Angeles, California, on a smoggy day.

Credit:

pxfuel

Share

Emerging research indicates the novel coronavirus is deadlier to people with long-term exposure to high air pollution and hits minority communities particularly hard.

Biostatisticians at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health compared death rates from COVID-19 with air quality records in 3,000 counties. They found that in areas with just a small increase in long-term rates of fine particle pollution, 15% more people are likely to be killed by the virus.

Researchers at the University of Siena in northern Italy also suggest there is an association between the region’s long history of high air pollution and the high pandemic death rates.

RelatedWhat can COVID-19 teach us about the global climate crisis?

Fine particle air pollution is any type of matter that is suspended in the air. It can come from burning wood, ground up gravel that rises into the air, dust, even salt that gets washed up from the shore. And, of course, from burning fossil fuels.

Particulate matter generally gets evaluated for its effect on human health based on its diameter. Air quality rules for the United States tend to focus on PM2.5, matter that is about 1/20th the diameter of a human hair.

A large body of research has shown that the more particulate matter people breathe, the more likely they are to die, particularly if they’re older, says pediatrician Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University. Bernstein did not work on the Harvard study.

PM2.5 can cause heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer and there’s strong evidence now that it can promote the development of Type II diabetes, contribute to mental health problems and affect a developing fetus, Bernstein adds. There’s also increasing evidence that it can damage the brain and that it could contribute to cases of dementia and autism.

“The bottom line is particulate matter is just generically really bad for us. And in many places in the world, including the United States, the major source is from burning fossil fuels. In other places, where people are using indoor cookstoves, for instance, and burning wood or dung or other things in their homes, that’s a major source.”

Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment, Harvard University

“The bottom line is particulate matter is just generically really bad for us,” Bernstein says. “And in many places in the world, including the United States, the major source is from burning fossil fuels. In other places, where people are using indoor cookstoves, for instance, and burning wood or dung or other things in their homes, that’s a major source.”

Now, scientists have noted a link between the likelihood of a COVID-19 patient dying from the disease and the patient’s exposure to particulate matter air pollution.

“In the last week, we’ve had evidence specifically on COVID-19 in the United States showing that…if you’ve lived in a place with overall worse air pollution, the death rate increases by 15% for every one microgram per meter cubed of air particulate matter air pollution,” Bernstein says.

To put that in context, Bernstein says, in Boston, where he lives, particulate matter levels will rise to 15 or 20 micrograms per cubed meter on a bad day. In many places in the United States, levels can rise to 30. So, data showing that a one-microgram-per-meter-cubed difference over long periods leads to a 15% increase in the death rate from COVID-19 is significant.

The researchers controlled for other factors such as wealth, baseline health levels, access to health care and host of other things, Bernstein points out, and, even accounting for all those things, they still found that small differences in exposure to air pollution can affect whether a patient will die of COVID-19 or not.

All told, particulate matter kills between 7 and 10 million people every year around the world, mostly in Asia. “It’s in the top 10 causes of death, maybe in the top five, by some estimates,” Bernstein says.

In the US, between 100,000 to 200,000 people die every year from exposure to particulate matter, but that death toll is not distributed evenly across the population.

“If you’re poor, if you’re African American, if you’re Latino, your odds of getting sick and dying from particular matter are much higher than other folks.”

“If you’re poor, if you’re African American, if you’re Latino, your odds of getting sick and dying from particular matter are much higher than other folks,” Bernstein says. “And we know, of course, that, short of death, there are a lot of bad things that happen to people from air pollution.”

“As a pediatrician, I know that air pollution can be a major risk for everything from ear infections to pneumonia,” he adds. In addition, particulate matter can both cause and exacerbate asthma in children and adults.

Like other scientists and health professionals, Bernstein also notes a direct link between air pollution in the form of particulate matter and climate change. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels contributes to an enormous number of deaths and fossil fuels are also responsible for about 70% of global carbon emissions. So, reducing or eliminating fossil fuels is a win-win.

Related: Mutual aid groups respond to double threat of coronavirus and climate change

“If we get off fossil fuels, we get rid of huge burdens of disease right now,” Bernstein says. “I think it’s critical [that] we don’t wait for months or years. When you stop burning coal in a power plant and convert it to renewables, the change in health happens right now. … And, of course, that means there are also less carbon emissions, which protects the climate moving forward.”

“I’ve been saying for the past several weeks that climate actions are pandemic prevention actions, and a lot of folks, I think understandably, get rankled by that,” he continues. “‘How can you be talking about climate change when people are dying of an infectious disease right now?’ And my answer to that is pretty easy: …[W]e know now that our health, the population health of people in this country, is a huge factor in how we deal with something like COVID-19.”

During the pandemic, US President Donald Trump and the US Environmental Protection Agency have continued to loosen rules controlling air pollution of all kinds, heightening concerns among public health professionals. Even before the latest round of regulation, air pollution levels in the US rose in the last three years, for the first time in decades, Bernstein notes.

“So, we already have this uptick in air pollution; now we have evidence that air pollution may be more risky; and we potentially have an EPA that’s saying, ‘Let’s not pay as much attention to air pollution.’ That would certainly give me pause, particularly for those folks in our communities that are most at risk,” Bernstein says.

As for how to deal with the present crisis, Bernstein advises parents and children to continue to pay attention to the hygiene and distance guidelines put out by health experts because even if your own risk is low, your actions help protect the people most at risk.

“There aren’t a lot of silver linings in this mess, but one of them could be that we cultivate a cohort of children who really get that we do things not always for ourselves.”

“There aren’t a lot of silver linings in this mess, but one of them could be that we cultivate a cohort of children who really get that we do things not always for ourselves,” Bernstein says. “That sometimes the right thing to do, which may not be something that we would do for ourselves otherwise, is important to do because it saves lives [and] keeps the people in our communities healthy — that we make decisions that matter beyond ourselves.” 

Related: Coronavirus is changing how people think about fighting climate change

He adds: “There’s been no experience in recent memory that has made it clearer than this one that our health is absolutely tied to the communities we live in and to the living world and that we simply must move forward on that basis if we want to make sure that our children grow up to have the opportunities and health that so many of us have enjoyed.”

This article is based on an interview by Steve Curwood that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

How science denial on the political right hampers the US response to COVID-19

How science denial on the political right hampers the US response to COVID-19

Writer
Adam Wernick

Player utilities

download

Listen to the story.

Science denial has led to delays in government responses to COVID-19 and climate change and eroded public trust in the very institutions we rely on to solve large-scale problems.

Credit:

Peter/Flickr

Share

Science denial in the United States has for decades fueled resistance to taking action on climate change. As a consequence, the battle to prevent its worst effects may already be lost. That same science denial continues today as the country fights to fend off or delay the worst effects of COVID-19.

President Donald Trump and several Republican governors delayed action and failed to heed the warnings of the nation’s healthcare science advisors, while leaders in other countries, such as South Korea and Germany, have taken more timely and successful actions.

A decade ago, Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard history of science professor, compared climate change denial to tobacco danger denial in her book, “Merchants of Doubt,” which was penned with Eric Conway and later made into a documentary film. The two then wrote a science fiction novel, “The Collapse of Western Civilization,” that explored a future where denial about climate science in Western countries kept them from responding to the climate crisis, while an authoritarian China did.

The argument about the role of government and its relationship to science remains tragically relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The irony, we believed, was that by delaying action on climate change, they actually made the problem worse and they increased the odds that the kind of government that they hate would, in fact, actually come to pass…”

“Eric and I had been talking for a long time about what we saw as a central irony in the story of ‘Merchants of Doubt,’” Oreskes says. “And that was that the people we were studying, the people we refer to as merchants of doubt, [believed they] were fighting to protect freedom, that they were defending American democracy, American freedom, and individual liberty, against the encroachment of big government. But the irony, we believed, was that by delaying action on climate change, they actually made the problem worse and they increased the odds that the kind of government that they hate would, in fact, actually come to pass, as we had to deal with the unfolding crisis. So, the idea was to write a story that would make that point.”

Related: Mutual aid groups respond to double threat of coronavirus and climate change

When countries experience a large-scale problem like a pandemic that doesn’t respect borders, a political system that centralizes power is better able to respond quickly than one in which power is more distributed, Oreskes says. “So, even though we might dislike centralized power in certain ways, there are certain kinds of problems for which centralized power is really important and may, in fact, be the only way to address the issue.”

Until fairly recently, Trump was unwilling to use the authority that he has, Oreskes notes. When the seriousness of the virus first became identified, back in January, he didn’t empower the Centers for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health to mount a strong response. He also chose early on not to use such powers as the Defense Production Act to compel the private sector to manufacture ventilators, face masks or other necessary medical equipment.

“Now, three months in, he is finally doing that, and suddenly we see the private sector — GM, Ford — being enlisted to do this sort of work,” Oreskes says.

Oreskes believes Trump’s hesitancy stemmed, in part, from a basic conservative reluctance to enlarge the size and role of the federal government.

“Tens of thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of Americans will die — Americans whose lives could have been saved if we had acted more quickly and with more organization in the early stages of this disease.”

“In this case, the consequence of that reluctance is that the virus essentially went out of control,” Oreskes notes. “And now, tens of thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of Americans will die — Americans whose lives could have been saved if we had acted more quickly and with more organization in the early stages of this disease.”

Conservatives have for 30 years been promoting the myth that there’s no way to solve problems like climate change without succumbing to totalitarianism, Oreskes maintains. But, “you don’t have to be a communist country to have an organized coherent response to a challenge,” she says.

Related: Coronavirus is changing how people think about fighting climate change

“The experience of South Korea, and to some extent Germany, as well, shows it’s not about being totalitarian,” she says. “It’s about paying attention to evidence, respecting facts, respecting expertise, and then mobilizing the resources that you have in line with what the expertise is telling you.”

What we’re seeing now in the US validates what she and Eric Conway predicted in “The Collapse of Western Civilization.”

“The idea that we were somehow protecting our freedom by disrespecting science — we’ve now seen how bankrupt that idea is.”

“Look at what’s happening now: We’ve lost huge amounts of freedom,” she points out. “The idea that we were somehow protecting our freedom by disrespecting science — we’ve now seen how bankrupt that idea is. I’m stuck at home and so are 200 million Americans. We’ve lost tremendous amounts of personal liberty, and we don’t know how long this is going to go on. We’ve also lost income. We’re seeing endless amounts of damage that could have been avoided if we had been willing to listen to and act upon the advice of experts.”

South Korea acted on the advice of scientific experts early on, whereas in the United States, “we have a president who has shown his utter disdain for and disrespect for science,” Oreskes points out. “He has been disdainful of the scientific evidence regarding climate change, he has been disdainful of the evidence regarding the safety of vaccinations against diseases like measles. And he is hostile to science.”

Related: What can COVID-19 teach us about the global climate crisis?

“Many of us … who do science, have been warning for a long time that if you undermine scientific agencies and the federal government, this will have consequences,” she says. “And now I think we are seeing those consequences in a very, very vivid way.”

In the 1950s and 60s, Oreskes notes, the federal government was not only putting a lot of money into science, but it was also “telling us a story about why science mattered.”

“Why did the American people believe in the importance of the Apollo program? It’s because we were told a story, a good story, a true story, about how science could help build America, how it could build our economy, how it could help build our educational systems and how we could do cool things like put men on the moon,” she says. “So, I think we need to recapture that commitment to science and to scientific institutions and to scientists.”

Equally important, Oreskes says, is to rebuild trust in government, Oreskes says. Science bashing has been linked in a direct way to a more general argument against the so-called “big government.” She believes Ronald Reagan’s slogan that “government is not the solution to our problem, the government is the problem,” has been “deeply, deeply damaging.”

“For 40 years, we have heard that argument made by political leaders on the conservative side of the spectrum, so much so that a lot of ordinary people don’t understand why we even have a Centers for Disease Control, much less why we really need to count on them now in this current moment,” Oreskes says. If the public is constantly hearing that government is bad or corrupt or inefficient, she adds, chances are they will begin to believe it.

“And the irony is that this can become true because, of course, if you put people in control of the government who don’t actually believe in governance, then they’re not going to do a good job in building the institutions that we need,” Oreskes adds.

“We have a lot of dysfunction in Washington, DC right now, and so people aren’t wrong,” she says. “People correctly perceive that Congress is dysfunctional, but that dysfunction is a product of 40 years of essentially anti-government policies.”

The coronavirus pandemic shows us why the country can’t wait until a crisis is upon us to mobilize the necessary resources, Oreskes insists. She uses military readiness as an analogy. Almost all Americans, she points out, accept the need for an army because we know that if we were to be attacked, we would be unable to mobilize an army overnight. “And we certainly wouldn’t be able to build battleships and airplanes and aircraft carriers,” she says. “We know that we have to do that in advance.”

“We have a notion of readiness when it comes to military matters, but many of us don’t have a similar notion of readiness when it comes to public health and medicine,” she maintains. “And yet, it’s exactly the same. If we’re not ready in advance, we will not be able to protect ourselves from a viral attack.”

If Oreskes were to write a story about how this particular crisis plays out, it would be a happy story about how it became a turning point and how, “because these issues became truly matters of life and death in front of our eyes, the American people began to wake up, and they began to realize that there’s a reason we have government and there’s a reason we have scientific institutions and there’s a reason why we spend money preparing for crises that may not happen.”

“[Similarly], nobody knows absolutely, positively for sure exactly how climate change will play out, but we know that climate change will play out and it will be very damaging,” she says. “And many of the kinds of damage that will occur, we can predict, even if we can’t predict exactly when or exactly where.”

This article is based on an interview with Steve Curwood that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

The chloroquine chronicles: A history of the drug that conquered the world

The chloroquine chronicles: A history of the drug that conquered the world

The history of the antimalarial drug chloroquine has many lessons about the power — and geopolitics — of medicine.

By
Elana Gordon

Player utilities

download

Listen to the story.

The gathering and drying of cinchona bark in a Peruvian forest. Wood engraving, by C. Leplante, c. 1867, after Faguet.

Credit:

Wellcome Library/Creative Commons

Share

An old drug is getting a lot of new attention around the world: chloroquine. 

In the United States, President Donald Trump has talked about the drug’s potential for treating the novel coronavirus, though there’s little evidence. Primarily used to treat malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, chloroquine’s link to COVID-19 has prompted a global rush on the drug — and led to shortages. 

But the clamor for the drug leaves leading scientists alarmed. The hopeful claims are unsubstantiated at this point, they say, even as scientists rush to set up trials to catch the research up to the hype. 

Related: Trump’s medical advice triggers run on malaria drugs in Mexico

A historic pandemic and sought-after plant 

Colored lithograph after M. A. Burnett, circa 1842, of the cinchona plant’s (Cinchona officinalis) flowering stem and floral segments.

Credit:

Wellcome Library/Creative Commons

The race for chloroquine is far from new. This remedy and its natural derivative, the cinchona plant, have defined world powers and symbolized hope for cures to destructive diseases for centuries.

“There are such clear parallels between what is happening now and what happened in the 17th century,” said Fiammetta Rocco, author of “The Miraculous Fever-Tree,” referring to a malaria pandemic that hit Italy especially hard in the 1600s. 

Many thought the illness, with its spiked fevers and shaking chills, came from noxious fumes. Instead, it was the parasite-carrying mosquitoes populating Rome’s many marshes that spread the disease. Malaria — Italian for “bad air” — killed the Pope in 1623. The Vatican shut down, and 10 of 55 cardinals died, said Rocco, who is also a culture correspondent for The Economist.

Related: Climate change will make animal-borne diseases more challenging 

Looking for a treatment for the disease, priests from the Jesuit Roman Catholic order set out on a scientific expedition and mission, traveling as far as the Andean region of South America. It was there that they found the cinchona plant. 

“You have to imagine … these huge, sort of botanical creations through which very little light even passes into the ground, they’re so huge,” said Rohan Deb Roy, a historian at the University of Reading in the UK and author of “Malarial Subjects.” 

The Jesuit missionaries and Spanish conquistadors first observed how locals used the bark of the plant — or “fever bark” — to treat malarial fevers, Deb Roy said. They then brought it back to Europe.  

‘A tool of empire’

Wood-engraving of the planting of the first cinchona tree in a new plantation in the Nilgiris.

Credit:

Wellcome Libary/Creative Commons

“Whatever cured malaria should be understood not just as a medicine, but also as a military weapon,” Deb Roy said. 

Malaria could kill more soldiers than bullets during war, and being able to fend off the disease became key to maintaining European colonies overseas. 

“The cure for malaria would be then seen as a tool of empire,” Deb Roy said, “enabling soldiers to survive in these sort of unpredictable tropical colonial landscapes, which otherwise would be impossible for them.”

That led to a race among rising industrial powers to grow their own cinchona to lessen their dependency on Spain’s monopoly over the plant in the Americas. The Netherlands ultimately succeeded in the territory of Java, present-day Indonesia.

But how the bark actually worked remained a mystery until 1823, when two French researchers discovered the compound that made the bark effective against malaria: quinine. 

Related: Lessons from Singapore and how it handled SARS

Quinine became the basis for many antimalarial drugs, though it took scientists another century to create a synthetic variation that would allow labs to manufacture the drug without any dependency on natural plants. Those research efforts picked up around World War I, when malaria posed a threat to all sides, including US soldiers training in the South.

“We often forget now that malaria was all over the place. All up through the Mississippi Valley there was malaria,” said Leo Slater, a chemist and author of “War and Disease: Biomedical Research on Malaria in the Twentieth Century.” 

In the early 20th century, the natural version of quinine — from grinding the cinchona bark — was still the essential weapon against the malaria parasite. But when Japan took control of the Dutch East Indies during World War II, that natural supply was halted. 

“When they do this, they cut off the rest of the world from the supply of quinine just as the war is coming,” Slater said. 

The US significantly ramped up its own anti-malarial efforts during the war. 

“They developed a large program, the largest of its kind and a model for post-war biomedicine to look for new drugs,” Slater said. “But the centerpiece of it was to test more than 14,000 compounds against malaria in one form or another.” 

In the rush to arm US soldiers with anti-malaria medication, the military narrowed in on Atabrine, a drug that was effective, but incredibly toxic, causing soldiers intense nausea. 

“They didn’t want to take it,” said Karen Masterson, a professor at Stony Brook University and author of “The Malaria Project: The US Government’s Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure.” “They were so resistant to it that the chain of command demanded that their unit commander put the pill in their mouth, close their jaw, and watch their Adam’s apple go up and down and swallow it.”

Related: Coronavirus most challenging crisis since World War II, UN says 

During the war, Germany under Adolf Hitler had also put significant efforts into malaria research, including testing drugs on people in state hospitals, prisons and concentration camps, Masterson said. (The US also used non-consenting patients as test subjects in malaria drug experiments.) 

By the end of the war, the US turned to a drug more tolerable than Atabrine. It had been developed, but not pursued, by German company Bayer, which had been pivotal in modern pharmaceutical practices and malaria drug experiments. The Bayer drug had also been used in experiments by a French doctor on residents of a German-occupied compound, Masterson said. 

That drug was chloroquine. 

A ‘miracle drug’

An image of an apparatus for making quinine pills from the Indonesian government publication “Know Indonesia … Know Your Friend,” circa 1951. 

Credit:

Ministry of Information of Indonesia/via Wikimedia Commons

By the late 1940s and ’50s, chloroquine became “one of the miracle drugs,” said chemist Slater. 

As the world entered a new era of peace, this “miracle drug” was promoted by the newly formed World Health Organization to help people across the world prevent and treat malaria.

Though chloroquine rose to fame quickly, its success didn’t last long, said Masterson. The so-called miracle drug was so widely promoted that malaria parasites developed a resistance, creating even more challenges in some communities where malaria was already endemic. 

“It’s not a perfect drug, it’s not a magic bullet,” Masterson said. 

Now, more than 50 years later, chloroquine, and its close relative, hydroxychloroquine, are in the spotlight again, as the world searches for a weapon against the new coronavirus threat. 

“I’m not at all surprised that such a significant and major drug that is chloroquine is back in the news in the context of a global pandemic,” Deb Roy said. 

COVID-19: The latest from The World 

Today, chloroquine still has important medical uses, but it can have serious side effects — even death for some. In the fog of a fast moving pandemic, no one knows yet whether it’s actually useful against COVID-19. 

Still, chloroquine — the product of magic plants, dead popes, and desperate hopes — has again come to represent a glimmer of light for some leaders today.

But Masterson cautioned that it represents something else, too. 

“To me it’s a symbol of false hope,” she said.