Category Archives: Social justice

Covid-19 and Hunger: A Double Crisis of Inequality

The coronavirus pandemic is causing a hunger crisis, and at the same time revealing vast wealth inequality

By Randy Rosenthal

Buddhist monks distributing food parcels at a temple in Sri Lanka

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a recurring headline that hardly anyone is talking about. It has never been the main story, up at the top and in large font. But it’s been there on page two or three, first in April, and then again in June, and more recently in September. I’m referring to the impact of COVID-19 on hunger, both in the U.S. and globally.

Before the pandemic began, there were about 135 million people in the world who faced crisis levels of hunger. According to a report by the UN World Food Programme’s executive director, David Beasley, that number will double over the next year, to some 270 million who will be “marching towards the brink of starvation.” In a briefing to the UN Security Council on September 15, Beasley stated that the World Food Programme (WFP) needed about $5 billion in order to prevent 30 million people from dying of starvation. Not over the next few years, but by the end of this year. Now.

Back in April, Beasley warned the Security Council that the world was on the verge of a hunger pandemic. People in India, Colombia, and Kenya were more concerned that they would die from hunger than from the coronavirus. Donors and countries heeded the call and passed a $17 trillion fiscal stimulus package, and the UN was able to help 100 million people in 88 countries. For this work, the World Food Programme was recently awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet in September Beasley warned that a new wave of hunger would sweep the globe and overwhelm already unstable nations reeling from violent conflict, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. Specifically, he mentions the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Yemen, currently the site of the gravest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Along with food insecurity, overall poverty rates are also drastically increasing, a reversal of three decades of progress. Nearly every nation’s economy has shrunk since April, but it is the poorest countries that have been hardest hit, those that cannot afford large setbacks. India, for example, suffered a 24% shrinking of its economic output between April and June, with about 120 million jobs lost. The Asian Development Bank estimates that 160 million people in Asia alone will be under the poverty line this year. Latin America, too, is seeing hunger rise due to economic disaster. There, according to a UN study, 45 million more people will fall under the poverty line, prompting warnings that Latin America must brace for “a lost decade.”

Yet most of the news we read regarding the pandemic is about the U.S. and Europe. There are reports on unemployment and death tolls, but many articles have headlines like these: “Can our summer vacations still be saved? What will restaurants do to stay in business once winter comes? Is it safe to fly? Or to take a train?” These questions and topics are all valid concerns, as the virus has affected each of us in our own way, and we’re all just trying to survive and stay sane. And yet these lifestyle issues clearly pale in comparison to the threat of starvation faced by 270 million people.

Seeing that nations have hesitated over committing more funds, David Beasley pivoted and addressed individuals to help. Specifically, he appealed to billionaires to pitch in, calling out those who have made “billions upon billions” during the pandemic. What does he mean by this reference? Well, just recently, a survey by the Swiss bank UBS and consultancy group PwC showed that the combined worth of the world’s 2,189 billionaires now stands at $10.2 trillion. The survey also showed that since March, when the coronavirus lockdown began, their wealth has surged to ever higher levels. How can this be possible, when so many people around the world are unemployed, sick, and suffering? The answer is stocks. Most of the gains are due to investments in technology and healthcare companies involved in developing vaccines and therapies against the coronavirus. The gap between the wealthiest .01% and everyone else has been steadily growing over the past decade, but in the words of the survey’s authors, “the COVID-19 crisis just accentuated the divergence.” In fact, the wealthiest Americans have become 170% richer.

Interestingly, and somewhat reassuringly, there has been a corresponding increase in donations by billionaires to charitable causes, with $7.2 billion given between March and June. Nearly $5 billion came from U.S. billionaires, who dwarfed their counterparts in China, India, Australia, and the UK—the survey made no mention of Russian billionaires, despite Russia having more billionaires than any other country. This philanthropy is perhaps why Beasley emphasized that he is not criticizing billionaires—after all, he’s only asking for $5 billion. “I am not opposed to people making money,” he said in his UN briefing, “but humanity is facing the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes.”

And yet for many of us, it doesn’t feel like the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes. Why is that? Is it because we don’t actually see hunger? That our news media endlessly covers Donald Trump and political pundits, but not devastated areas in Africa? If we saw just a few of the 20 million people in crisis in Yemen, would we demand our government do more to stop the fighting there?

Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming the media, especially because these stories on hunger are out there—that’s how I’m compiling this article. But these are not sexy stories. The crisis is often happening to other people, people far away, in parts of the world that are in dire situations anyway. And the causes of the global hunger crisis are complex—a combination of lost wages, disruption of food supply chains, the collapse of oil prices, the evaporation of the tourist industry, and continued disasters arising from climate change such as droughts, floods, and locust plagues are all contributing factors.

It’s so complicated, it seems like there’s nothing we can do. So, we think, we might as well meditate, read more articles about politics, watch sports, and plan our next vacation. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we can also donate to organizations like Buddhist Global Relief, which since the COVID crisis erupted has been providing monthly donations of $3,000 to Feeding America, a central hub for U.S. food banks. This is in addition to its regular projects assisting poor communities around the world.

We can share stories about global hunger on social media. We get ourselves riled up at systemic racism and political maleficence, but we can express outrage about the hunger crisis too, condemning the larger economic system that allows a few to live in luxury while millions starve. We may not be billionaires, but each of us can help in our own way.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.

The Persistence of Poverty is a Political Choice

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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In a report issued on behalf of the UN’s Human Rights Council, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, explodes the comforting myth that humanity is finally on the verge of eradicating extreme poverty. The report, titled “The Parlous State of Poverty Eradication,” insists that the belief that we are making good progress in eliminating poverty “is unjustified by the facts, generates inappropriate policy conclusions, and fosters complacency” (p. 1). The author maintains that our good intentions to promote greater economic justice are constantly being undermined by false assumptions about the extent of poverty and stymied by flawed decisions about the most effective means to vanquish it.

The report points out that the optimism among policy professionals and thought leaders rests on the use of a deceptive standard to define extreme poverty. The official standard, the World Bank’s international poverty line (IPL), is arrived at by averaging the national poverty lines employed by the world’s poorest countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The line, currently set at U.S. $1.90 in purchasing power parity, is “a standard of miserable subsistence rather than an even minimally adequate standard of living” (p. 1).

On the basis of the IPL, the U.S. in 2016 had a poverty rate of 1.2 percent, though the rate was actually 12 percent. On the IPL South Africa would have a poverty rate of 19 percent vs. a real poverty rate of 55 percent, and Mexico a poverty rate of 1.7 percent vs. a real rate of 42 percent. Setting the line so low, the report maintains, is bound “to guarantee a positive result and to enable the United Nations, the World Bank, and many commentators to proclaim a Pyrrhic victory” (pp. 4–5).

The report points out that much of the progress in eliminating poverty under the Bank’s IPL is due not to any upward global trend but to developments in China, where between 1990 and 2015 the number of people below the IPL dropped from over 750 million to 10 million. If a more realistic poverty line of $5.50 were adopted, the number of poor people globally held almost steady between 1990 and 2015, declining merely from 3.5 to 3.4 billion. That is hardly a reason to proclaim an end to extreme poverty.

Even under the Bank’s line, between 1990 and 2015 the number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East rose by 140 million (p. 9). Using this weak criterion, some 700 million people worldwide live under $1.90 a day, which is morally abhorrent in itself, but if we were to take a more realistic measure the extent of global poverty would turn out to be vastly higher and current trends discouraging.

According to the report, efforts to eliminate extreme poverty are bound to run up against two factors that will inevitably increase the numbers of the poor. One is accelerating climate change, which we are hardly addressing with the urgency required. Over the next decade an altered climate is projected to push 100 million more people below even the weak standard of the IPL.

The other major threat is COVID-19, which over the next three years will drive 176 million people into poverty at the $3.20 poverty line. The report calls COVID-19 “a pandemic of poverty” which lays bare the parlous state of social safety nets for low-income people around the world. Rates of illness and mortality expose racial and class divisions, and access to health care and financial assistance is also skewed along racial, gender, religious, and class lines. Those hit hardest by the pandemic are the “essential workers” who do not have the luxury of “sheltering in place” but are compelled to work under precarious conditions, becoming “sacrificial lambs” to keep the economy functioning (p. 9).

The primary guideposts the international community relies on for tackling poverty are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The first of the goals is an “end to poverty in all its forms everywhere” by 2030. Taken in isolation the goal sounds ambitious enough, but the specific targets proposed to meet this goal are “patently inadequate to actually end poverty, and the prospects of achieving them are rapidly receding” (p. 10). The tenth goal calls for reducing inequality, but the plan of implementation relies on the premise that the key to reducing inequality is continued economic growth—a shaky assumption, since history shows that the benefits of unregulated economic growth disproportionately go to the affluent.

The only viable way to end poverty, according to the report, is wealth redistribution, which would require more aggressive governmental control over the economy. However, the reigning paradigm of neoliberal ideology dictates that the market must be allowed to operate on its own, without government interference. Current attempts to achieve the SDGs therefore marginalize government action in favor of private investments and “public-private partnerships,” which usually optimize the interests of the investors over the needs of the poor (p. 12).

The report does not reject the SDGs themselves, but calls for reflection on “ways in which the overall package, including targets and indicators, can be re-shaped and supplemented in order to achieve the key goals which otherwise look destined to fail” (p. 14). One flawed premise that underlies the formulation of the SDGs is the idea that the most effective way to achieve them is through economic growth. While this premise is considered sacrosanct in neoliberal economic circles, the fact remains that the benefits of growth disproportionately go to those in positions of wealth and power. While the poor may see some small improvements in living conditions, economic disparities widen to a still greater degree and thus the old bugbear of inequality remains.

The staggering levels of wealth and income inequality in today’s world should dispel any inflated notion that the world is moving toward greater economic equity. The bottom 50 percent of the world’s population now owns less than 1 percent of total global wealth, while the top 1 percent holds 45 percent of the total (pp. 15–16). Reduction in economic inequality requires a redistribution of wealth, but figures like these remind us how far we have to go to overcome global poverty.

The report recommends global debt forgiveness as a critical factor in establishing a just international economic order. Another measure the author proposes is fair and equitable taxation, which “must be front and center in any set of policies to eliminate poverty.” Fair taxation has a significance that transcends mere economic pragmatism, standing as “a symbol of solidarity and burden sharing” and “a reflection of deeper values” (p. 16). Just tax policies would call upon wealthy individuals and successful corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, and this would require an end to tax evasion through the use of tax havens, for which the U.S. has been “the global trendsetter.” At present there are hundreds of thousands of tax havens worldwide, depriving states of as much as $650 billion in tax revenue (p. 16).

On the positive side, the project of ending poverty calls for the implementation of programs that provide universal social protection, helping people deal with the adversities brought on by sickness, disability, unemployment, and old age. Shockingly, four billion people—over half the world’s population—completely lack any level of social protection, while for many others the support available to them is far from adequate. This, according to the report, is “an extraordinary indictment of the global fight against extreme poverty” (p. 17)

The report sees this abdication of social responsibility on the part of governments to stem from the pressure of neoliberal policy agendas, which favor minimal taxation and result in the imposition of harsh austerity measures as a way to balance budgets. When governments are denied the resources they need to serve their populations, the task of providing social services falls upon private or institutional philanthropy. This relies on the good will of the donor agencies, but fails to establish a genuine systemic solution to the persistence of poverty.

According to the report, the dependence on philanthropy as the main way of helping the poor perpetuates a vicious cycle. Billionaires amass their fortunes through policies that tax labor more than capital and facilitate tax avoidance. Deprived of the funds they need to maintain programs of social uplift, governments are compelled to rely on private charity to provide for the needs of their populations. The wealthy philanthropists then demand more favors for themselves to compensate for their charitable expenditures, which in turn strengthens their influence over the government.

The outcome is a weakened public system, a more powerful role for the rich, and dependency of the poor on handouts. The effort to address poverty through philanthropic giving “is no replacement for an equitable tax system or robust publicly funded programs that fulfill the human rights of all people and work to eliminate extreme poverty” (p. 18).

An adequate standard of living and social protection against the slings of adversity are, according to the report, basic human rights. From this perspective, extreme poverty becomes a violation of human rights. If effective measures were adopted, the international community would have at its disposal the resources required to effectively lift impoverished peoples up to a decent and dignified standard of living. The reason poverty persists is because governments and international agencies have been reluctant to stand up against the powerful global financial and political forces that resist a wider and more just distribution of wealth and political power. As increasing percentages of global wealth are siphoned off by a small, super-wealthy elite, while billions live on the edge of survival, we are gradually reverting back to the social conditions depicted in the novels of Charles Dickens.

In the end, the report holds, it is up to governments to take back their capacity to fulfill the needs of their populations. Government is, in theory, our collective voice, and its institutions are the hands through which we express a sense of national and global solidarity. The stubborn persistence of poverty, the author writes, is not a decree of fate but “a political choice” that is also an affront to our sense of social justice. It is, he concludes, “only when the goal of realizing the human right to an adequate standard of living replaces the World Bank’s miserable subsistence line [that] the international community [will] be on track to eliminate extreme poverty” (p. 19).

From Tragedy Springs Hope: Reflections on the Killing of George Floyd

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis, ignited protests and marches around the country under the banner of Black Lives Matter. To fulfill this aspiration will require extensive changes both in our institutions and in our ways of thought.

Photo: Samuel Wagner, Flickr

The police killing of George Floyd this past Memorial Day has set off a stream of protests in cities and towns across the U.S., and even around the world, united under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.” The murder, captured on video by a passing pedestrian, reveals the horror of racism in its terrible immediacy. Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” followed by his silence, leave us shocked at witnessing such a naked display of cruelty taking place in broad daylight in a major American city, committed by an officer of the law.

Anyone who attends to the news knows that such killings are not rare. The names of the victims repeatedly flash across the media, each time setting off a wave of public revulsion. Where the murder of Mr. Floyd stood out was in the rawness of the visual imagery that revealed the slow agony of his death.

In the aftermath of the killing, black leaders and their allies are demanding stricter laws regulating police behavior. While any effective response to these tragedies must include major changes in policing practices, a movement based on the maxim that “Black Lives Matter” cannot stop there but must seek to stamp out all forms of violence, obvious and subtle, that debilitate the lives of Black Americans in this country. These are often veiled behind a curtain of code words and thus must be brought out into the open.

The murder of George Floyd is a stark reminder of our legacy of racist violence, a legacy that includes slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and the prison-industrial complex. But racism also occurs in ways that are not blatantly violent but still leave black people stunned and gasping for air. These include poor quality in health care, education, jobs, and housing, all based on the premise that black lives are not really entitled to the same opportunities that white people enjoy. If we truly believe that our country stands for “liberty and justice for all,” we would reject that premise and provide neglected Black Americans and other groups in need with the critical building blocks of personal and communal well-being. These are human rights, and it is the job of the government, as expressing our collective will, to ensure they are made available.

We can’t fall back on the excuse that providing such benefits would bust the federal or state treasury. We spend close to a trillion dollars on the military, lavish battlefield equipment on police departments, and give whopping tax breaks to billionaires and giant corporations. If we got our priorities straight, we could easily provide everyone in this country with the basic requisites of a decent life. The real reason politicians and their constituents agonize about spending on such services is because in large measure they would benefit Black Americans and other people whose skin is a darker shade.

Among all economically advanced countries, the U.S. stands out in the paucity of the social services it offers its population, and a major factor behind these spending constraints is racism. In the name of social justice, this has to change. The social safety net, now badly frayed, must be repaired and widened, so that no one falls through the holes in times of illness, a job layoff, or old age. Those in need must be provided affordable housing, vocational training, and quality health care. The minimum wage should be boosted to the level of a real living wage, and the range of good-paying jobs expanded through the rapid adoption of a Green New Deal that simultaneously combats climate change and unemployment. We must guarantee all people access to clean drinking water and nutritious food, and make massive investments in public education at all levels, starting with pre-K.

Measures to establish social justice must be supplemented by efforts to restore political justice, especially by countering attempts by conservatives to undermine voting rights. These efforts have spread across districts with large black populations, especially in southern states, where devious tactics are used to diminish black turnout for elections. Instead of limiting the right to vote, we should make the process of voting as easy as possible. This will require people of conscience to stand up against the effort to distort elections through restrictive voting protocols.

While economic and social transformation is essential, to eliminate racism at its root we have to take the project deeper, bring it down to a more personal level. The racist policies and institutions that undergird almost every aspect of life in the U.S. stem from long entrenched prejudices that ascribe a diminished value to the lives of African Americans and other people of color. How else can we explain the vast gaps in income and wealth between whites and blacks, the hostility in Congress to food stamps and welfare, or the shorter life spans of black people compared to other racial groups? How else can we understand why COVID-19 fatalities among Black Americans are 2.5 times higher than among whites?

In the end, what is required to achieve a lasting resolution to racism in this country is a change in the perceptions and attitudes that allow these travesties to continue. White people in particular must make a deliberate effort to look beyond stereotypes and see every human being, regardless of skin color or ethnic origins, as worthy of care and respect. Just as we each cherish ourselves, so we must learn to see each and every human being as endowed with inherent value and thus as worth cherishing.

To change our perceptions is no easy task. The human mind is governed by a deep tendency to objectify others and subsume them under categories that reflect our personal biases and fears, particularly the fear of difference. To objectify others is to blind ourselves to their own intrinsic reality as persons who, like ourselves, wish to avoid suffering and seek happiness, who want to live and not to die, who aspire to realize their innate potentials.

What is needed above all to eradicate racism is, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “an unconditional love” rooted in an understanding of our shared humanity, our shared fragility and vulnerability. Such love would give rise to genuine compassion for those who suffer and a desire to ameliorate their pain, but would also affirm our common capacity for leading lives of meaning and purpose. It would thereby unite us in a collaborative effort to create a society—and even a world—in which everyone can flourish.

Given our history of racism and current cultural norms, efforts to forge such strong bonds of solidarity will run up against both internal and external obstacles. Not only must we deal with our habitual biases and the pressures of our peers, but we will inevitably face opposition from those who benefit from division and want to preserve their privileged status, even though, in the end, such divisions diminish us all.

As a nation we presently stand at a crossroads where we can either go forward in creating a “beloved community” of mutual affirmation, or we can retreat backward into the bunkers of suspicion, resentment, and racial violence. We can come together to create a society that serves the needs of all, or we can struggle to prevail in a zero-sum game.

The unity among young people of all races and backgrounds marching along the streets of our major cities shows that the seeds of a society centered around human solidarity are blowing in the wind. The tragedy of George Floyd’s killing is starting to blossom in new flowers of hope. Our task now is to realize the potential of this moment and enhance its power until it becomes the dominant ethos of our time.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and the founder and chair of Buddhist Global Relief.

 

Whose Lives Matter?

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Even though Covid-19 has been taking a heavy toll on workers in the meat industry, late last month President Trump issued an executive order demanding that meat-processing plants must resume operations. The effect of this order is to confront workers with a horrendous choice: either risk losing their jobs or risk losing their lives. With meat-processing plants becoming hot spots for Covid-19, many workers are terrified about going back to work.

The Priority of Profit

The well-known saying of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath,” might be reformulated with regard to the economy: “The economy should serve the needs of people; people should not be made to serve the economy.” Yet the logic of modern corporate capitalism often dictates just the opposite, that people be subordinated to the demands of the economy, an omnivorous giant that feeds off a steady stream of human sweat, blood, and tears.

With the profit motive as its driving vector, the mammoth corporation directs all the components of its complex operational system toward profit maximization. When profits stagnate or decline, the company may freely adopt whatever measures are needed to change course and push earnings back on an upward curve, often without regard for the physical well-being of its employees. While labor unions earlier formed a bulwark against corporate abuse, the decline of unions has given corporations license to get their way without fear of resistance.

A particularly egregious example of this inversion of ethical priorities came to light at the end of April when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to compel meat-processing facilities to resume operations. In March and April, these plants had become hot spots for Covid-19. By the end of April, at least twenty workers had died from the disease and over 5,000 were infected. Since then even more workers have been infected and died, but a shortage of testing equipment prevents us from knowing the exact numbers.

As infections spread, state and local authorities used their power to order some of the most badly contaminated plants to close, a measure considered necessary to protect public health. In sum, during those two months, thirteen meatpacking and food-processing plants shut down, including some of the nation’s biggest. In response, the executives of the giant meat corporations mounted a campaign of opposition, claiming that the closing of the meat plants would endanger the national food supply. John Tyson, chairman of the board of Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor, published a full-page ad in major newspapers, including the New York Times, warning that “the food supply chain is breaking.”

Enter the Defense Protection Act

This message got through to the president, who invoked the Defense Protection Act to demand that the plants reopen. The DPA was originally adopted to grant the federal government the authority to order private industries to produce materials and equipment needed in times of war. But Trump used it, not for national defense against a hostile military power, but to protect the meat industry from declining profits.

The president’s executive order states that the closure of meat-processing plants by state and local authorities has been “undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” and he called on the Secretary of Agriculture to “take all appropriate action… to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations consistent with the guidance for their operations jointly issued by the CDC and OSHA,” that is, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Trump’s decree puts in jeopardy not only the workers themselves, but their families and communities. Meat-processing workers often live in multi-generational households with scant opportunity for quarantine or social distancing. In such tightly cramped quarters, if a younger worker becomes infected with the virus, even if they remain asymptomatic, they might easily infect other members of the household; for older relatives infection may prove fatal. But for the president, such concerns are subordinate to those about the meat supply. In the words of Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union: “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products.”

Despite the rhetoric of “critical infrastructure” and a “national emergency,” a continuous supply of meat is in no way essential to meeting our country’s nutritional needs. Our obsession with meat may actually be harmful to our health. While reduced availability of meat might agonize those who crave the taste of beef, pork, and chicken, it’s not going to undermine their health. The demand to reopen the meatpacking plants is driven primarily by the wish to guarantee that profits from the sale of meat continue to flow into the coffers of the food corporations, sustaining the salaries of executives and the dividends of shareholders. The costs will be borne by those forced to return to work, who will be sacrificing their health and even their lives on the altar of the plant. To step into a processing plant at a time when many workers are carrying the virus, untested and undetected, is to place at risk one’s health and even one’s life.

Adding to the tension between management and the workforce, between capital and labor, is an underlying racial and ethnic dynamic. A large number of workers in the meat-processing industry are Latinos, Asians, and African Americans; many are immigrants or members of immigrant families. Thus the demand that the plants be reopened, and that workers return to their jobs, suggests that an unspoken premise behind the injunction is a judgment that black and brown lives—the lives of the workers—are of less value than the lives of the owners and managers and thus may be sacrificed to ensure the plants remain operative.

In the words of Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant organization America’s Voice: “Trump sees business owners as his people and he sees a diverse group of workers as expendable…. For ‘essential workers’ it’s ‘get back to work’ and ‘voluntary’ guidelines at pandemic hot spots. For a CEO class that’s white and wealthy it’s profits and legal liability protections.”

A Terrifying Choice

What the workers want and need is access to the federal stockpile of masks and other protective gear, daily testing, enforced physical distancing, and full paid sick leave during periods of illness. When protective equipment at the plants is in short supply, it’s hardly surprising that workers fear losing the most precious possession they have, their own life. As one local organizer in Iowa told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!:

I have family working across the board, across the state and into some other states, in the industry. So, you know, it’s very scary for my family, my immediate family, my extended family. I have cousins who now have tested positive because of these plants. My sister and her husband have tested positive here just recently because of these plants. And again, [we’re] just incredibly scared.

The president’s executive order does nothing to allay these fears. It does not make the protective guidelines mandatory, but instead shields the meat companies from legal liability in cases of workplace exposure to the virus. Any company legally challenged can claim that, in reopening during the pandemic, it was merely following a decree issued by the highest authority in the land.

The demand for the continued operation of the plants forces the workers to choose between their jobs and their lives—a terrifying choice that no one should ever have to face. If, from fear of contracting the virus, workers stay back from work, they may well lose their jobs and the income they need to support themselves and their families. If, to maintain their household, they report to work, they risk contracting the virus and losing their lives.

A Crisis of American Democracy

The perilous choice faced by workers in the meat industry represents, in microcosm, the crisis in American democracy, pointing to the big question too often hidden behind discussions of everyday social issues: Who does the government represent—ordinary people or the moneyed interests that contribute to campaigns and flood Congress with lobbyists?

The answer, which is obvious, underscores the need for a radical overhaul of the economic paradigm that currently reigns, that of corporate capitalism grounded upon an ideology of free-market fundamentalism. In the ultimate analysis, to preserve our political democracy, we must institute economic democracy, transitioning to a system that gives workers fuller control over their terms of employment. But such changes are long-term goals. In the short term, with a pandemic raging that has already taken more American lives than the Vietnam war, what is needed is a slate of workplace regulations, rigorously enforced, that ensures workers remain safe at their jobs.

It would certainly be desirable, too, if meat were to be knocked from its place as the centerpiece of the standard American diet in favor of plant-based sources of protein. Apart from its cruel treatment of billions of helpless animals and the merciless death it inflicts at the slaughterhouses, livestock cultivation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a leading cause of deforestation, water and air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Raising animals for food requires vast amounts of land, water, and grain, a deplorable waste of food in a world where chronic hunger afflicts close to a billion people. Further, high intake of red meat and processed meats is linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death. Thus a nation-wide shift from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet would bring manifold benefits. To forestall unemployment, under a federal program workers in the meat industry could be retrained to take up more benign types of livelihood.

Nevertheless, such a pivotal change in the American diet is unlikely to be realized anytime in the near future, and we must therefore focus on protecting the welfare of workers in their present occupation. This requires both ethical commitments and regulatory enforcement. A company must fulfill its moral responsibility to the well-being of its workforce, ensuring that its employees do not jeopardize their health and well-being at the workplace. A company that treats its workers as disposable, as mere instruments of production whose lives can be imperiled to serve the company’s interest, has transgressed against a basic principle of workplace ethics.

Yes, Regulation Is Necessary

In face of the moral recklessness of modern corporate capitalism, the need for regulatory protection is particularly acute. Almost invariably, companies will seek to cut corners whenever they can get away with it. It thus becomes the obligation of the government to step into the fray and come to the defense of the workers, which means that the government must enact laws that safeguard workers and impose regulations that prevent industries from operating in ways that endanger their workforce.

A government that does not protect workers from the ruthless demands of industry has forfeited its responsibility to the people it purportedly represents. Despite their professed good intentions, industries can’t be fully trusted to regulate themselves. Regulation is the job of the government, a job that must be rigorously pursued to protect the well-being of the workers. It is only in this way that we can move, gradually, toward becoming a nation that gives everyone the chance to flourish.

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American Buddhist monk and translator of Pali Buddhist texts. He is also the founding chair of Buddhist Global Relief


This essay was originally published on the website of OneEarthSangha.

 

The Coronavirus Forces Us to Fix the Flaws of our Food-Supply System

By Randy Rosenthal

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The coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system in at least two ways. One is by compelling retail food staff–grocery workers and delivery “shoppers”–to put their health at risk. The other is the widespread destruction of fresh food.

Next to the fragility of the medical industry, the coronavirus has exposed the flaws of our food-supply system—especially the vulnerability of the people who make it possible. Grocery-store workers and delivery “shoppers” in particular have found themselves taking on the first-responder risks of doctors, nurses, and EMTs. Dozens have died of COVID-19, and thousands have gotten sick. Understandably, they’re afraid to go to work. But they have to, because in order for the rest of us to eat, someone must deliver food to grocery stores, and someone must stock the shelves.

Many grocery stores have automated checkouts, but most still have clerks. And so while many of us can work from home and observe physical distancing guidelines, grocery-store workers are forced to come in proximity with hundreds of people a day. Due to this sudden and dramatic uptick in risk, the lack of safety and security that grocery companies provide their workers has become starkly apparent.

Soon after governors announced stay-at-home orders in March, supermarket workers and “shoppers” began to protest the dangerous conditions they face and the lack of health support available to them. Most live paycheck to paycheck, and cannot afford to miss work, especially because most supermarkets do not provide paid sick leave. And now workers had to expose themselves to getting sick from the coronavirus, a risk that is exacerbated by the failure of supermarkets to provide basic protective personal equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves, and sanitizer.

Whole Foods particularly has come into focus for its poor treatment of its workers. As one worker reported to Oxfam America, Whole Foods did not provide PPE and actually encouraged workers to buy their own. He also reported that even if a worker tests positive for COVID-19, the store does not close to get cleaned. Nor is the information shared with other employees with whom the infected worker may have come in contact. This creates a frightening, dangerous working environment that has many grocery workers freaked out.

Whole Foods “shoppers” who deliver for Amazon Prime, as well as Instacart “shoppers,” are also on the front lines, as they deliver groceries so that we don’t have to leave our homes to get them. In normal times, these “shoppers” provide a convenience for anyone too busy or too lazy to shop for themselves. Now they are risking their lives—and the lives of anyone they come in contact with—so that we don’t have to go to the market.

In the context of this pandemic, this service is what economics calls a “positive externality,” which is when someone’s private behavior leads to broader social benefits. Here, “shoppers” for Instacart and Amazon reduce the need for people to congregate, and are therefore lowering the systematic risk of COVID-19 for everyone, allowing society to flatten the curve of infection. The grocery-delivery business is booming, with Instacart saying they’ll immensely expand their workforce, by adding 300,000 shoppers. But “shoppers,” too, have complained that they’re not provided with basic protective gear that helps keep them safe, such as hand sanitizer and masks.

All this is why many organizations like Oxfam have launched campaigns demanding that grocery stores act to support their workers. First, workers are demanding paid sick leave. Recent legislation has made paid sick leave mandatory, but only for businesses with 500 or fewer employees, leaving companies like Amazon and Whole Foods off the hook. Governments are currently trying to address this loophole, and ensure that anyone working an essential business is provided with two weeks paid sick leave, if they either test positive for COVID-19 or have to quarantine. This is a decent start, but let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Paid sick leave is an intrinsic aspect of any developed nation, and so perhaps the pandemic will force the US to catch up and leave this legislation in place.

Supermarket workers are also demanding hazard pay, which is an increase in their hourly wage to account for the increased risk. This makes sense economically. The demand for such workers has surged; their value should rise accordingly. Stores have responded with a temporary wage increase; they know that without their workers, they won’t have a business and continue making money hand-over-fist. And yet many workers still feel that the proposed $13-per-hour raise is not worth their life.

Another primary complaint is that customers are not taking care to protect the health of workers by observing physical distancing rules, and generally trying to ensure a sanitized working environment—just this week, a grocery store worker shamed my housemate for bringing a reusable bag. As a result, many grocery stores now have a limit on the number of customers allowed in a store at a given time, with signs specifying six feet of spacing.

Some stores have put up plexiglass barricades to protect the checkout clerks, and some have provided free gloves and masks. But not all have done so, and so there needs to be legislative action to enforce these safety precautions for workers across the country. Otherwise, it will be up to the managers of individual stores to make the call.

The coronavirus has forced law-makers and company owners to take a more active, broader role in safeguarding the health and economic security of workers, at least temporarily, but as the effects ripple out, the pandemic has exposed another fatal flaw of our food-delivery system: the factory-farm, market-based supply of food production.

On the one hand, the supply of meat is suddenly in peril, as large, consolidated meat-processing plants in the Midwest and South have been forced to shut due to a high number of coronavirus cases among their workers. And on the other hand, with restaurants, cafes, and schools closed down, demand for milk, eggs, vegetables, and grains across the board has plummeted. As a result, farmers have destroyed an immense percentage of their own products, as The New York Times recently reported. Tractors are crisscrossing bean and cabbage fields, destroying the crops. About 5% of the country’s milk supply is currently being dumped into lagoons and manure pits, an amount that can double as the shut-down continues. And as most people don’t make onion rings or French fries at home (I haven’t had fries for about a month!), millions of pounds of onions and potatoes are being buried in ditches, left to rot.

In normal times, many people in the world are going hungry, and millions struggle to buy food. But with the millions of people who have lost their jobs, global hunger will rise, and putting food on the table will be even more difficult. That’s why this widespread destruction of fresh food is particularly terrible.

Yes, farmers say they have donated surpluses to food banks, but without the usual delivery chains, they simply do not know what to do with their food. Their machines, they explain, are geared to package food for restaurants, in large containers, not the smaller packages for retail at grocery stories. And so, because of this food supply-chain flaw, they simply throw the food away.

Food waste is a normal part of our market-based system, but the pandemic has magnified how abominable of a waste it is. Just as the coronavirus has forced us to address the safety and economic security of grocery-store workers, it should also force us to rectify the unsustainable flaws of our market-based food-supply system as a whole. In other words, food and health are rights, not commodities.

As my colleague Keith Hartwig, an artist, designer, and researcher working in the fields of Science and Technology Studies, wrote on Instagram in response to this Times report, “We have to go deeper, to reveal what food waste and these dystopian images signify: a deeply flawed food system built on economic subsidies, models of monoculture and overproduction, unfair and unstable global trade polices and labor practices, decades of economic disparity and social injustice, unequal access to and distribution of food resources, failed urban planning, and much much more.”

At the end of his post, Hartwig asks, “Will we emerge from this and revert to the old normal, or will we emerge from this ready to create a new normal? A normal no longer rooted in greed, but a normal rooted in equity fairness, resilience, foresight, and sustainability.”

Before the pandemic, it would have been highly unlikely that we would be able to create this new normal of food justice. But now is a time not only of great challenge, but of opportunity for systemic change. And if we want to ensure the next pandemic doesn’t cause a similar catastrophe, we’d be wise to fix the exposed flaws of our food-supply system, from production to delivery, so that it prioritizes health and sustainability.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications.

 

 

 

Listen up, Congress: We need swift COVID-19 measures that put people first

 By Mary Babic

Cross-posted from Oxfam America’s “Politics of Poverty” series

The swift and devastating spread of the coronavirus in the US is dealing a staggering blow to our public health systems and our economy. It is also exposing how working families have been struggling for decades. As Americans grasp the enormous and long-term impact, they support policies that will deliver to those most affected and pave the road to an equitable recovery.

 The groundswell is crystal clear: A new Oxfam-Data for Progress national poll, conducted days ago, indicates overwhelming support (greater than 70 percent) for measures that directly help working people, including: paid sick leave for all workers, emergency funding for food supplies for those affected by the crisis, free testing for the virus, and moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs.

Even “very conservative” voters indicate majority support for emergency cash payments, waiving copays for coronavirus treatment, and increasing federal funding for Medicaid. On the flip side, support drops noticeably for policies that prop up large businesses.

Support extends across all divides

Stunningly, support for these measures cuts across ideological, racial, and age divides. Simply put, voters recognize that this is a moment of great peril. As the clock ticks and the numbers rise, the pandemic is quickly revealing how many working families were already struggling to stay afloat, living paycheck to paycheck.

Americans want to prevent them from falling into bankruptcy, homelessness, and hunger. Women indicate stronger support for actions to protect working people. This may reflect the fact that women face disproportionate hardships during crises. They are the primary caregivers of children, the ill or disabled, and the elderly, and being confined in the home increases care work and stress. In addition, women are currently on the front lines as nurses, doctors, personal aides, and cleaners. Finally, we know from long experience that domestic violence spikes in times like these.

Among the overall insights: 86 percent support free access to coronavirus testing, vaccination, and care for every American. Eighty-six percent support strengthening unemployment assistance (especially for workers who depend on tips, gig workers, domestic workers and independent contractors). Eighty-five percent support an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut offs. Just 54 percent support low–interest government loans for oil and gas companies.

Americans are saying it loud and clear: We cannot sit back and watch as the pandemic devastates the most vulnerable and flattens our economy. It’s time for proactive and effective government action. While Congress recently passed legislation that mandated paid sick leave, it excludes 80 percent of workers. We must do better.

An effective policy agenda

If our response is left to the market, COVID-19’s impacts will cascade through our economy, further deepening poverty, gender, racial and wealth disparities.

It is not time for half-measures and incremental tweaks to an economic system already fragile and rigged in favor of the powerful. Instead, we need decisive, audacious actions to prevent long-lasting and grave economic consequences for everyone—especially for those pushed out of progress for decades.

As Congress feverishly negotiates its third economic rescue package, Oxfam has developed a full economic policy agenda. Here are some highlights:

Protect working people being hit the hardest 

Payroll tax cuts are a farce: ineffective, regressive and potentially bankrupting Social Security. Instead, Congress should deliver:

  • Cash payments to all individuals.
  • Recurring boosts to federal anti-poverty programs.
  • Paid sick and family leave to all.
  • Increased unemployment insurance benefits.
  • Fiscal relief to states, counties, and cities that will bear the brunt of this crisis.
  • Investments in emergency shelters for women facing domestic violence at home.

 No blank checks to big business, but lifeline support to smaller companies and workers

An economic triage rescue plan would prioritize support to small businesses on the edge, not the country’s most powerful multinational companies flush with cash.

  • This is not a time for bailouts, or corporate tax cuts, for big business.
  • This is not a time to re-write tax policy to the benefit of the wealthy (which endangers resources we will need in the long term).

Moreover, we agree that assistance to corporations should be conditioned on forbidding recipients from: reducing payrolls; violating existing collective bargaining agreements; demanding concessions from workers; outsourcing; increasing workloads; and, companies must agree to a $15 minimum wage once the crisis has passed.

Any sectoral assistance should be explicitly time-limited and subject to certain conditions, including and especially prohibiting share buybacks; freezing executive bonuses; requiring board approval for political lobbying expenditures; and country-by-country tax reporting.

No free lunch to certain sectors

Any assistance to corporations should not exacerbate existing inequalities, worsen public health outcomes, or impede the necessary global transition to a zero-carbon economy. In particular, sector-specific benefits for oil and gas producers, who’ve long-received subsidies and tax breaks, should not be considered at this time.

Affordable testing, treatment, and vaccination will be essential for economic recovery. Any assistance or incentives for the pharmaceutical sector must ensure that breakthroughs in treatment and vaccines become a global public good, accessible and affordable to everyone.

Mary Babic is the Senior Communications Officer for the US Regional Office at Oxfam America.

 

Dr. King’s Radical Revolution Of Values

By Richard Eskow

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. http://www.marines.mil/unit/mcasiwakuni/PublishingImages/2010/01/KingPhoto.jpg

Today, January 20th, the nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. If Dr. King hadn’t been murdered, he would be 91 years old. How would he view today’s activists?

The words to his “I Have a Dream” speech will be repeated from podiums and in classrooms across the country. But many of the people repeating these words have never heard other King quotes, like this one:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

King’s Answer

To those who condemn idealism, who preach the quiet cynicism of self-limiting “pragmatism” and insist it’s “how the world works,” Dr. King had an answer: He was, in his own words, “maladjusted.”

In a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, he said:

There are certain things in our nation and in the world (about) which I am proud to be maladjusted… I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.

But in a day when sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…

Dr. King also said: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

“We must… realize,” he continued, “that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

A Radical Spirit

In other words, Dr. King was a radical.
Continue reading

On Global Hunger and Climate Change

By Randy Rosenthal

Over recent years funding for nutrition has increased and global poverty has been reduced, yet global hunger has still been on the rise. The number of hungry people has risen from 785 million in 2015 to 822 million in 2018. How is this possible? According to this year’s Global Hunger Index, it’s because we’re not efficiently addressing the newer causes of hunger–principally conflict and climate change.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) is an annual report put out by the international Committee on World Food Security. Using data from 2014 to 2018, it scores countries using four components: undernourishment, child wasting (low weight-for-height), child stunting (low height-for-age), and child mortality. This year it measured 117 countries, forty-three of which show levels of “serious” hunger. Four countries—Chad, Madagascar, Yemen, and Zambia—have “alarming” levels of hunger, and the Central African Republic suffers from a level that is “extremely alarming.” While the report shows that progress has been made since 2000, the number of undernourished people across the globe is increasing. This is especially the case in sub-Saharan African countries affected by conflict and drought, and in South Asia, which shows the highest levels of child stunting and child wasting. Continue reading

The Politics of Happiness: An Essay on the Global Happiness Conference

By Randy Rosenthal

A recent UN report ranks nations by way of their quota of happiness, utilizing a complex set of metrics. But can happiness actually be quantified? Several glitches in the ratings suggest any such effort, while revealing in some respects, will always be far from perfect.

The top 20 happiest countries (World Happiness Report 2019)

On Wednesday, March 20, 2019, the United Nations released the World Happiness Report. This includes an annual ranking of the happiest countries in the world, along with several essays about the relationship between government policy and individual happiness. A few weeks later, on April 13, the editor of the report, John F. Helliwell, participated in a panel at the Global Happiness Conference, held at Harvard Divinity School, and which I attended. Continue reading

BGR Exceeds Its EWEC Target

By Tom Spies

 

In 2016  BGR made a commitment to the Every Woman Every Child initiative (EWEC) that it would help to advance EWEC’s global strategy through our projects.  Here is some background on EWEC:

Every Woman Every Child is a multi-stakeholder movement to implement the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, launched by the UN Secretary-General in September 2015 in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Since its launch in 2010, Every Woman Every Child has mobilized hundreds of partners for maximum effect, with hundreds of organizations having made commitments to advance the Global Strategy. The partners include governments and policymakers, donor countries and philanthropic institutions, the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, civil society, the business community, health workers and their professional associations, and academic and research institutions.

BGR had committed to expending $1,600,000 over the 5 years from 2016 through 2020 towards programs to advance the EWEC goals, benefiting an estimated 16,000 individuals.  A few days ago we made an interim measure of our progress to date, and found that after 3 years we have already exceeded our 5-year commitment, expending $1,844,317 towards the EWEC goals, and benefiting an estimated 30,000 individuals.

This is an achievement truly worth celebrating. From this you should know that your donations are part of a worldwide movement helping to ensure the health and well-being of women, children, and adolescents around the world. Thank you all for your compassionate concern in supporting this endeavor!

Tom Spies is Executive Director of Buddhist Global Relief.