Motion passed at Labour Conference on Israel and Palestine, 27 September 2021

01/10/2021 Comments Off on Motion passed at Labour Conference on Israel and Palestine, 27 September 2021

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Conference condemns the ongoing Nakba in Palestine, Israel’s militarised violence attacking the Al Aqsa mosque, the forced displacements from Sheikh Jarrah and the deadly assault on Gaza.

Together with the de facto annexation of Palestinian land by accelerated settlement building and statements of Israel’s intention to proceed with annexation, it is ever clearer that Israel is intent on eliminating any prospects of Palestinian self-determination.

Conference notes the TUC 2020 Congress motion describing such settlement building and annexation as ‘another significant step’ towards the UN Crime of Apartheid, and calling on the European & international trade union movement to join the international campaign to stop annexation and end apartheid.

Conference also notes the unequivocal 2021 reports by by B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch that conclude unequivocally that Israel is practising the crime of apartheid as defined by the UN.

Conference welcomes the International Criminal Court decision to hold an inquiry into abuses committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 2014.

Conference resolves that action is needed now due to Israel’s continuing illegal actions and that Labour should adhere to an ethical policy on all UK trade with Israel, including stopping any arms trade used to violate Palestinian human rights and trade with illegal Israeli settlements.

Conference resolves to support “effective measures” including sanctions, as called for by Palestinian civil society, against actions by the Israeli government that are illegal according to international law; in particular to ensure that Israel stops the building of settlements, reverses any annexation, ends the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, brings down the Wall and respects the right of Palestinian people, as enshrined in international law, to return to their homes.

Conference resolves that the Labour Party must stand on the right side of history and abide by these resolutions in its policy, communications and political strategy.

Young Labour
Wolverhampton South West CLP

Published online by Labour List at: https://labourlist.org/2021/09/labour-conference-passes-young-labour-israel-and-palestine-motion/, 27-09-21

Letter to Rt Hon Margaret Beckett DBE MP, Deputy Chair, Committee on Standards in Public Life

01/10/2021 Comments Off on Letter to Rt Hon Margaret Beckett DBE MP, Deputy Chair, Committee on Standards in Public Life

Sex matters in many areas of life. But public institutions have adopted policies which replace clarity about the two sexes with self identification on a spectrum of ‘gender identity’. In doing this they have departed from the law. Erasing sex undermines equality, safeguarding, data collection, evidence-based policy making and the rule of law, especially the application of the Equality Act 2010. 

This is happening not through democratic processes, but at the behest of lobby groups claiming to represent the interests of a transgender minority. It is enabled by institutional capture, the threat of being called “transphobic”, and the chilling effect of intimidation and closing down of debate.

When JK Rowling  expressed her concerns in measured, careful and compassionate terms, the ferocity of the response served as a warning to others. Ordinary people from every sphere of life face similar attacks. They fear losing their security, their freedom to speak, their livelihoods and maybe even liberty.

As one NHS consultant said, in words that were read out in House of Lords:

“I have campaigned for equality across the board all my life and yet now I’m dismissed as a bigot and a transphobe for even trying to raise concerns at all.”

This is a situation that public bodies have walked into with the best of intentions. Roughly 250 Government departments and public bodies, including police forces, local councils and NHS trusts, are members of Stonewall’s “Diversity Champions” scheme. Others are trained by Gendered Intelligence, Mermaids, and other allied organisations. These institutions adopt a broad definition of “transphobia” and commit to an approach of “zero tolerance”. 

Public bodies demonstrate their allegiance through measures such as rebranding their logos with rainbows, substituting gender for the protected characteristic of sex in their equality policies and monitoring, and adopting a definition of “transphobia” that makes dissent a disciplinary matter. 

We support the aims of ensuring that transgender people are not discriminated against or harassed in employment and as users of services. But the demands of these organisations go beyond that, and seek to compel  acceptance of a set of beliefs about sex and gender identity; what it means to be male or female. 

Individual practices are now being tested in court, and judges are expressing surprise at the lack of evidence, data and oversight underpinning them. Examples include Keira Bell’s challenge of the Tavistock Clinic’s treatment of gender dysphoric children with puberty blocking drugs; the ongoing judicial review of the accommodation of male prisoners who have obtained a “gender recognition certificate” in women’s prisons; and the judicial review of the Office of National Statistics’  advising people to disregard what it says on their birth certificate when answering the sex question in the census. Her Majesty’s Passport Office has admitted that it has no record of how many people it has allowed to change the sex recorded on their passport from “M” to “F” with a simple template letter downloaded from the internet and signed by a GP. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is being challenged for its failure to publish clear guidance on single sex services. 

Legal cases are one way to bring arguments and evidence into public debate and scrutiny. But they are expensive, and these policies are pervasive; across schools, universities, the NHS, local government, regulators, the charitable sector. The dots need to be joined up. And those who are disadvantaged and put at risk when safeguarding protections are corroded, and single sex services removed or made ambiguous, are often the most vulnerable and least able to complain. 

These cases have been supported by an extraordinary movement of grassroots groups, funded by thousands of people contributing small amounts of money. This mobilisation is testament to a failure of the institutions of public life to hold open space for debate and deliberation. 

Recently in parliament a debate broke through the chilling effect, following the introduction of a bill on maternity leave for Ministers, which avoided using either the words “woman” or “mother”. It took courage for MPs and Lords to speak up. As cross-bench Lord Baroness Tanni-Grey Thomson said 

“This is a contentious issue and in this debate there will be many views… We need to be able to have an open discussion, without fear of retribution, of being cancelled or shouted down for discussing terminology or having a different view. …

I thought long and hard about joining the debate today and whether I could deal with any potential backlash that may come my way for saying that the word “woman” should be in this Bill. …Being told what my opinion should be does not encourage sharing of views and is detrimental to the long-term goal of equality.”

We urge you to read the whole of those debates, particularly those in the House of Lords on 22 and 25 February where Lords from across the house expressed grave concerned about the impacts of the erasure of sex on law and policy, on freedom of speech and on public decision making and the culture of public institutions. 

This is a systemic issue, across national and local government institutions and private and voluntary institutions. Fear of speaking clearly and recognising reality makes it impossible for people to do their jobs with integrity, objectivity and accountability and to pursue equality. 

The  Committee on Standards in Public Life, uniquely and unquestionably, has a remit and responsibility to take this up. We urge you to speak up and to call for leaders of institutions to refocus on building cultures that enable selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership, not identity politics. We call the Committee to open an inquiry into the political erasure of sex in the UK.

Kind regards…

[I signed this letter dated 28-9-21 with some of the members of the women’s group I am a member of. The letter arose from our reading and discussion of a statement called “Sex Matters”, which I recommend. It was also sent to the Committee on Standards in Public Life and can be found here: https://sex-matters.org/take-action/take-action-archive/sign-our-letter/]

To the readers of my blog

29/06/2021 Comments Off on To the readers of my blog

Dear readers,

I have not written much on this blog this year as work and mental survival have swallowed up my time and energy. However, I want to say very briefly that I do not appreciate people signing on to read this blog who do not identify themselves but who use made-up names. Several months ago, I removed everyone from the list who fit this “category” — having only just discovered I could do so. I will do it again.

To those of you who have stayed with me and who do identify yourselves, I thank you for your support. Doing a blog as an individual, I have discovered, is not the same as doing it as someone in a position such as a journal editor. I need to re-think what the point is, and I am hoping/intending to start writing again after the summer if not before!

Very best wishes, Marge

HANDS OFF THE NHS!: A letter to my MP

23/01/2021 Comments Off on HANDS OFF THE NHS!: A letter to my MP

Dear Nickie Aiken,

Of all the serious things your Government is doing wrong and all the hurt you are causing, I never thought I would have to send you an email about you agreeing to sell off the NHS. Let alone in the middle of a pandemic, when the NHS is on its knees because you have failed to fund it properly for many years, you have supported Brexit, which has pushed heaven knows how many European health professionals who worked in the NHS out the back door, and you have failed for years to ensure that the numbers of specific professionals, such as midwives, are adequate.

Yesterday I got an email from an NGO that supports the NHS, that said this:

“Last night we watched as Tory MPs

·       Voted against an amendment to protect the NHS from trade deals by 357 to 266

·       Voted against giving themselves a say over trade deals in future by 353 to 277.

I also read that: “The House of Lords put forward amendments to protect our NHS. And this government refused to listen.”

How dare you? And how often in the coming years are you going to keep up this foul behaviour? Why are you in Parliament if all you want to do is hand over your powers and our public services, built over a century, to sharks? Resign, Nickie, along with your good friend Boris. We need an MP who will stand up for the people she represents and speak up for and defend our needs.

We need the NHS like never before. Not privatised, not controlled by ignorant businessmen, not chopped up into pieces and sold off like meat. Not dominated by people with less public health experience than the size of their little toenails. What were the results of that pathetic consultation you did about changing the whole set up of the NHS? Over Christmas? Unpublicised? Unpublished and unheeded, I’m sure.

The people of this country need the NHS. Desperately need it. 100,000 have already died thanks to your government’s incompetence and corruption and insistence on privatising the services for test & treat, production of PPE and much more (putting billions in the pockets of their friends into the bargain). We don’t need your politics when all you do is spend your time making sure that no one who needs help with anything receives it.

Oppose and overturn this vote, Nickie, vigorously. Has Boris really kept so few Tories in the Party with any integrity at all? What a terrible legacy you will leave. If I have to say “shame on you” every remaining day of your term in office, as much as it angers and upsets me to have to do so, I will. But know that this is the bottom of the barrel. There is nothing worse than this except a wholesale sell-off all at once.

HANDS OFF THE NHS, Nickie. You will never be elected as a government again if you sell any more of it off and destroy it as a public health service. It belongs to us, not to you. Marge

To my friends and colleagues: PLEASE WRITE TO YOUR OWN MP AND REGISTER A STRONG PROTEST AGAINST THAT VOTE. WE CAN’T GO INTO THE STREETS TO PROTEST IN OUR THOUSANDS BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF SPREADING COVID-19 EVEN FURTHER, WHICH WOULD PUT EVEN FURTHER STRAIN ON THE NHS. BUT WE CAN STILL WRITE TO OUR MPs. WE NEED TO DO SO IN OUR TENS OF THOUSANDS. AND NOT JUST ABOUT THIS. THEY ARE GETTING AWAY WITH BLOODY MURDER. PROTESTING FROM HOME NEEDS TO BE DEVELOPED INTO AN ART.

Sharing an important human rights statement about Israel-Palestine

14/01/2021 Comments Off on Sharing an important human rights statement about Israel-Palestine

A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid

by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, 12 January 2021

The article begins:

“More than 14 million people, roughly half of them Jews and the other half Palestinians, live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea under a single rule. The common perception in public, political, legal and media discourse is that two separate regimes operate side by side in this area, separated by the Green Line. One regime, inside the borders of the sovereign State of Israel, is a permanent democracy with a population of about nine million, all Israeli citizens. The other regime, in the territories Israel took over in 1967, whose final status is supposed to be determined in future negotiations, is a temporary military occupation imposed on some five million Palestinian subjects.

“Over time, the distinction between the two regimes has grown divorced from reality. This state of affairs has existed for more than 50 years – twice as long as the State of Israel existed without it. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers now reside in permanent settlements east of the Green Line, living as though they were west of it. East Jerusalem has been officially annexed to Israel’s sovereign territory, and the West Bank has been annexed in practice. Most importantly, the distinction obfuscates the fact that the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians. All this leads to the conclusion that these are not two parallel regimes that simply happen to uphold the same principle. There is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organizing principle.”

Read the full article here: https://www.btselem.org/publications/fulltext/202101_this_is_apartheid

And then read these:

The criminal neglect of Palestinian lives under occupation – and covid-19

International call for Israel to provide necessary vaccines to Palestinian health care systems

Covid-19 & Vaccines

11/01/2021 Comments Off on Covid-19 & Vaccines

“With a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe, unless everyone is safe”

[This sub-title is taken from the WHO Covax report: “Working for global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.” Covax offers: Doses for at least 20% of countries’ populations; Diverse and actively managed portfolio of vaccines; Vaccines delivered as soon as they are available; End the acute phase of the pandemic; Rebuild economies.]

PHOTO: https://www.innomech.co.uk/covid-19-where-do-we-go-from-here

As of 7 January 2021, there were 85,929,428 confirmed cases of Covid-19 internationally, including 1,876,100 deaths reported to WHO. Data by region can be found here.

In 2020, the pandemic doubled the number of people who needed humanitarian aid worldwide, according to the UN, and is driving record-breaking humanitarian needs in 2021, according to the New Humanitarian.

Since April 2020, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator partnership, launched by WHO and partners, has supported the fastest, most coordinated, and successful global effort in history to develop tools to fight a disease. With significant advances in research and development by academia, private sector and government initiatives, the ACT-Accelerator is on the cusp of securing a way to end the acute phase of the pandemic by deploying the tests, treatments and vaccines the world needs. But…

Donors have committed to fund the scale-up of the ACT-Accelerator but warn that major additional funding is critical to its success. As of 22 December 2020, contributions brought the total committed to over US$ 5.8 billion – but an additional US$ 3.7 billion was needed urgently, with a further US$ 23.7 billion required for 2021, if tools are to be deployed across the world as they become available.

The vaccines pillar of the ACT-Accelerator, convened by CEPI, GAVI and WHO, is supporting the building of manufacturing capabilities, and buying supply ahead of time, so that 2 billion doses can be fairly distributed to poorer countries by the end of 2021.

Announcements of effective and safe vaccines for Covid-19 were greeted with enthusiasm. But discussions continue about the ethical challenges of ensuring fair access to Covid-19 vaccines within and across countries, and which groups should be prioritised. (Lancet 397:10268, 10 December  2020) Thus: “Concerns about equity in access to the vaccines are growing. Estimates as of 2 December 2020 suggested direct purchase agreements had allowed high-income countries to secure nearly 4 billion vaccine doses, compared with 2·7 billion secured by upper and lower middle-income countries. Without such agreements, low-income countries would probably have to rely on COVAX, which would achieve only 20% vaccination coverage.

“While COVID-19 vaccines bring potential hope for a return to some kind of normality, vaccine-based protection is contingent on sufficient population coverage and requires effective governance, organisational, and logistical measures within a wider Covid-19 control strategy that includes continued surveillance and appropriate countermeasures. Successful vaccine roll-out will only be achieved by ensuring effective community engagement, building local vaccine acceptability and confidence, and overcoming cultural, socioeconomic, and political barriers that lead to mistrust and hinder uptake of vaccines.”

The World Health Organization announced in December 2020 that it had signed agreements to reserve some 1.3 billion doses for low- and middle-income countries under the COVAX programme, which was created with the goal of ensuring equal vaccine access.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, developed in Belgium, was the first vaccine to receive emergency validation from WHO on 31 December 2020 since the outbreak began a year ago. This opened the door for countries to expedite their own regulatory approval processes to import and administer the vaccine. It also enabled UNICEF and the Pan-American Health Organization to procure the vaccine for distribution to countries in need. However, this vaccine requires storage using an ultra-cold chain; it needs to be stored at -60°C to -90°C degrees. This requirement makes the vaccine more challenging to deploy in settings where ultra-cold chain equipment may not be available or reliably accessible. SOURCE: WHO, 31 December 2020

Two other vaccines have been approved as well: The Moderna vaccine, produced by Moderna in Spain, was authorised across the European Union on 6 January 2021; it also requires cold storage. And now there are several other vaccines making their way around the world as well.

The Astra-Zeneca vaccine, developed by Oxford University and Astra-Zeneca in the UK, has been approved in the UK, India and Mexico. Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna brands, it can be stored at higher temperatures and costs less to produce. India has an Astra Zeneca production facility in the country so it is said they can start producing vaccine and vaccinating people.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine costs providers about $4 per dose, while Pfizer’s costs $20 and Moderna’s costs $33, Al Jazeera reports. These prices will most likely fluctuate as time goes on and the vaccines evolve.

All three of these vaccines’ side effects are similar, including potential injection site pain and flu-like symptoms, including fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle pain, which are to be expected when the immune system is first primed. Because all of these vaccines require two injections spaced several weeks apart, because none of them is 100% effective, and because it takes time for the protection to reach its height, wearing a mask and physical distancing after vaccination is still recommended. (Prevention, 4 January 2021)

Which countries have begun to roll out one or more vaccines?

The following is not an exhaustive picture but gives an idea of what is happening globally, including a sometimes chaotic situation and the fact that often unfair access issues that are emerging. It shows that having produced a vaccine versus successfully vaccinating a population are two very different things indeed. The one does not always lead smoothly to the other. This is proving to be true in the USA and UK, for example, where serious problems are emerging. The prospects for countries with weaker health systems are therefore concerning.

The UK was the first country to start administrating a Covid-19 vaccine, soon followed by over a dozen other countries. The following mainly well-off countries had approved and started administrating one or more vaccines by 29 December 2020:

Belgium, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary Israel, Italy, Kuwait, Malta, Mexico, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, UK, USA.

On 28 December, Sputniknews quoted the  Russian Health Minister, Mikhail Murashko, as saying to the Russia-24 broadcaster that the Health Ministry had approved the Sputnik V vaccine for use in persons aged 18 and over. Thus, citizens over 60 years old could now be vaccinated against the new coronavirus infection. He added that the Sputnik V vaccine was considered to be safe and effective for older people. Vaccination began. Argentina also initiated the vaccination process using the Sputnik V vaccine, having received a first batch of 300,000 doses. (Pharmaceutical Technology, 28 December 2020) On 29 December 2020, Belarus also started administering the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to its population.(Moscow Times, 29 December 2020)

In Russia, compulsory vaccination of frontline health, education and social workers was already underway, but some members of the medical profession with priority access to Sputnik V are deeply sceptical of it. The Moscow Times interviewed 12 medics based in the capital, most of whom expressed reluctance – or outright refusal – to accept this vaccine as it had not yet been through sufficient trials for international clinical approval but was given a green light based on results from much smaller groups of volunteers than its Western counterparts. Some said their managers told them they could be sacked for refusing to be vaccinated. However, it was also reported that ongoing difficult relations between the medical profession and the Health Ministry, and anger at being forced to accept vaccination, may be playing a bigger role in this dispute than mistrust of the vaccine itself. In any case, data from clinical trials have not yet been published, but more than 50 countries have already asked to buy or produce Sputnik V, presumably because they will not get access to the more expensive ones any time soon. (Moscow Times, 29 December 2020)

Chinese pharma are also working on a number of vaccine versions. The Chinese authorities have given conditional approval for general public use of a vaccine called Sinovac, developed by the state-owned company Sinopharm, though published data about it are also limited. Other vaccines from other Chinese companies are said to be in the pipeline. Meanwhile, the Sinopharm vaccine is already being administered to in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and Pakistan is said to have bought 1.2 million doses. Shipments of Sinovac have also arrived in Indonesia and deals with Turkey, Brazil and Chile are said to have been secured already one month ago. (BBC News, 3 December 2020)

Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine research trials were conducted with volunteers in Argentina, South Africa, Brazil, Germany and Turkey, as well as in the US. But Argentina, South Africa, Brazil, and Turkey have learned that they will have to be satisfied with Pfizer’s gratitude for their participation, because (like most countries in the world) they won’t be receiving enough of the vaccine to inoculate their populations sufficiently, at least not anytime soon. Producing enough vaccine to cover a large majority of the world’s population – 70% is said to be the optimum (minimum?) total – is not going to be a speedy affair. A UNICEF dashboard shows:

Meanwhile, the USA and Germany – along with Canada, the UK and the rest of the European Union – have contracted to buy enough doses of various Covid-19 vaccines to inoculate their populations several times over. But even that is proving not to be enough. The USA, for example, is struggling with the logistics of its vaccine rollout, which is taking much longer than was expected. (See also The Intercept, 31 December 2020)

Then there is what happens when deliberate discrimination for political reasons dominates vaccine rollout: There are reports that Palestinians living in the occupied territories are being excluded from Israel’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout and may have to wait months for vaccination, while injections go to Jewish settlers. (Guardian, 3 January 2021)

Negative consequences of not meeting unrealistic but powerful public expectations

What is most worrying is if people start thinking that the only thing they need now is to be vaccinated, and refuse to continue to endure lockdown and keep each other safe through masking and physical distancing, assuming even those preventive actions are both possible and happening adequately now (which they are not). The fact is, no matter how much demand there is for vaccination, most people will not be vaccinated immediately or soon, let alone necessarily during 2021.

In the UK, due to the massive failure to implement an effective test–trace–isolate programme in order to prevent the spread of the virus, a mutation of Covid-19 that was discovered some weeks ago has spread rapidly. This is happening in many other countries as well, not least because far too much unchecked international travel is also still taking place and being promoted. On one UK television station last night, an advertisement offered a 40% discount on 600,000 seats!

And reports are being published that vaccination rollout has been slower in many countries than was hoped for, not least because there are simply not enough staff to carry it out. Hence, public health people and governments will have to guard against something akin to panic at government level on how to deal with conflicting demands and limitations.

In addition to imposing a total lockdown in the UK after a far too lax Christmas period, a decision was taken by government public health officials in the first week of January to postpone giving the second injection of both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccines in order to provide first injections to many more people more quickly. The reasoning was that even one injection provides more protection than none. Then, within a few more days, they went even further and proposed to use the Pfizer vaccine for the first dose and the AstraZeneca vaccine for the second dose, that is, if they did not have enough supply of both to use the same brand twice for each person vaccinated. What was the response? As one expert from the USA said:

“Officials in Britain ‘seem to have abandoned science completely now and are just trying to guess their way out of a mess’.”

These policy decisions have caused major debates amongst the expert scientific community internationally, in which responses have ranged from: “Don’t try it”, to “There are no research data to support this”, and “You don’t know how long the first injection will remain effective if you delay the second injection” and “You need to trial these changes first”. All are absolutely correct. On the other hand, a few experts have acknowledged that the “trade-off” being proposed – under imperfect circumstances in which the health care system is already stretched to its limits of coping – is an understandable one, even if not evidentially supported.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top expert on infectious diseases in the USA, said he would not recommend following Britain’s lead on this, while reports say Germany and Denmark are now also considering delaying the second Covid vaccine dose, presumably for reasons similar to Britain’s. At this writing, WHO has also stepped in and said postponing the second injection – Britain is proposing an interval of up to 12 weeks – is not supported by scientific evidence; they are also against it.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made it clear that the approved Covid-19 vaccines “are not interchangeable,” and that “the safety and efficacy of a mixed-product series have not been evaluated. Both doses of the series should be completed with the same product”. This is a big gamble as none of it is data driven. At the worst, a huge number of first injections may prove useless if second injections are delayed too long, pushing everything back to square one.

Another major concern, just emerging and as yet unanswered, is whether any of the existing vaccines will be as effective against the mutated viruses (of which there are now several kinds reported from different countries) as against the original virus they were developed to block. This is the global situation as we send this newsletter out.

See the following articles, which address this growing list of unresolved issues and problems:

Panic, abandoning the COVAX agreements on equity of access to the vaccines that a large majority of countries supported less than a month ago, rushing to use vaccines whose trial data are still limited and/or have not yet been published and evaluated, ignoring good quality trial data to try and speed up a process that cannot be rushed – all of these are mistakes that in the longer term will not take the world where we need to be.

Prevention of infection remains a global priority

Our leaders need to convince people to hunker down, that this situation is with us for longer than we would all like, and that prevention of the continuing spread of infection from one person to another to another is still needed worldwide, based on what is known about the speed of spread of the mutated virus. Our leaders need to prepare for and put in motion major efforts to strengthen and expand national public healthcare services on a longer term basis.

Meanwhile, prevention includes mandatory masking of adults and children over the age of two in all public places, indoors and outdoors; better promotion of physical distancing – that is, to stay at least two meters (six feet) away from other people in public spaces; handwashing when arriving home and using disinfectants in shops; national lockdowns; effective test-trace-isolate programmes run by local health services in which isolation of everyone who tests positive is enforced and supported; closure of schools and supported home teaching of children; and economic support for all those who have lost their jobs or are unable to work – as well as effective protection for all key workers – are critical to defeating this pandemic.

Not just vaccines. And even with vaccines. Today, someone wrote that to vaccinate the world out of this pandemic, 70% of all our populations will need to be vaccinated. This is a gargantuan task and will take far more than one year, let alone a few months. This needs national and individual discipline and accepting the reality and complexity of disease prevention and control.

Lastly, we need to add public health education to the curricula of schools and the training of politicians, and for all our leaders. Our national media also need an education in how to promote public health far better than most of them are currently doing. We were already warned in 2016 that there were more pandemics to come. Most of our countries did not listen. And today, almost all our countries have proved we are far from ready. The few who were ready, and who have managed to contain and defeat this virus, such as Taiwan and New Zealand, have not been seen to be or used as models to follow by the rest of us. At our continuing peril.

Postscript: I published this report in the newsletter of the ICWRSA even though it’s not directly about abortion. I wrote it because I think everyone with any connection to public health issues needs to be sharing this kind of public health information in order to support control of this pandemic. Our lives depend on it. We also need to know much more about what is happening in the poorest countries, which this report clearly does not touch upon. Further information is more than welcome.

The pandemic is out of control because we’re not protecting ourselves and each other! We can do this better!!

01/01/2021 Comments Off on The pandemic is out of control because we’re not protecting ourselves and each other! We can do this better!!

LA Times

Far too many people in the UK are not taking the two most important precautions to protect themselves and each other from Covid-19 when they are not at home:

* always wearing a mask &

* always staying away from other people (2 feet at least and 6 feet whenever possible)

When I go outside for a walk every day I am constantly faced with other people not wearing masks and not keeping any distance from others, more often men than women, especially young people, rambling along the pavement absorbed in what’s going on with each other — or totally absorbed in what’s going on in their earphones or on their mobile phones — laughing with their mouths wide open, running huffing and puffing and coming up right behind me before they pass me, walking right next to me even when there’s lots of room not to, including those on a bicycle. Never seeing me or anyone else. I must look like a drunkard, because I step off the pavement often and walk into the street to avoid them, or swerve to the right or the left to create space between us, with almost every person who passes. They don’t notice. When I was still taking walks along the north bank of the Thames, I would hold both my arms out to the sides when people approached who were ignoring my existence and were about to walk right next to me. That succeeded a lot better than saying anything, because it was inoffensive, unexpected and caught their attention. No one walked straight into my hands. I got at least a bit of space and with a lot more dignity than shouting. But other people’s lack of awareness can make going for a walk very tedious, even infuriating.

I have to ask: is it a sign that most people are not taking this pandemic seriously or don’t consider themselves (let alone others) at risk enough to change their behaviour?? This is why HIV & AIDS reached pandemic levels. And yet surely changing your sexual behaviour, i.e. always using a condom for penetrative sex, is a much more demanding form of behaviour change than wearing a damn mask. Which is nothing by comparison.

People aren’t stupid. But the pandemic is invisible for most people apart from a few brief shots of hospital staff covered in protective equipment on TV and the daily cases and deaths figures in the newspaper. How many of us have watched someone gasping and unable to breathe for hours, coughing their guts out, delirious, pouring sweat with fever, let alone dying from this virus? Not many. Unlike in the poorest countries, there are no bodies in the road, we see no images in mortuaries. Although we have the 5th highest number of deaths in the world, 73,000+ deaths, this is a tiny percent of the population. Never mind that Taiwan has had only 7 deaths since February, with a third of our population. Why haven’t we, why hasn’t our government, learned lessons from them — and from New Zealand?

Most people haven’t yet twigged that we are doing this to ourselves. Most of us probably know someone who has had it by now, but we only tend to see them after they’ve recovered. And we may hear someone talk about how awful it was, how weak they were, how they were on oxygen, or how they passed out and fell down and broke a bone. But we haven’t watched it happen, nor had to look after them while they’re ill or get them to hospital. And we’re not allowed to visit them in hospital or be with them when they die.

Equally importantly, a whole generation has grown up without a public health education. There is no Health Education Authority anymore in the UK, not since 2002 when it was shut down, for no apparent good reason. Maybe someone with no foresight thought that with the “end” of HIV (which is in fact still with us) or the advent of HIV treatment, it wouldn’t be needed. We’re paying for that decision daily. A vaccine isn’t going to get us out of this on its own either. And now we have an incompetent government with no public health knowledge, who have thrown away billions by putting a string of commercial companies with no public health competence in charge of the services we need. The government has grossly mismanaged this pandemic from Day One, and at this rate, they will go on doing so for the duration of their tenure in office.

Vaccine? We wouldn’t need one if we paid attention to what is in fact very simple science. There is already a very effective treatment for avoiding Covid-19 right now and there has been from the start. This is it, in case you didn’t hear what I said above:

STAY SIX FEET AWAY FROM OTHER PEOPLE, ALL THE TIME!!!

DON’T BREATHE, COUGH, LAUGH, SNEEZE, OR BLOW SMOKE NEAR ANYONE ELSE!!!

DON’T LET ANYONE BREATHE, COUGH, LAUGH, SNEEZE OR BLOW SMOKE ON YOU!!!

ALWAYS WEAR A MASK WHEN OUTSIDE YOUR HOME.

I REPEAT: ALWAYS WEAR A MASK WHEN OUTSIDE YOUR HOME!!!

The virus is spread by breathing on other people. No public message has been this clear. No public message has used visuals to show all the wrong ways people are masking (when they bother) – e.g. with their noses uncovered, with the whole mask on or under their chin, with it hanging from one ear, holding it in their hand, taking it off as soon as they exit a train – even while still on the platform, the escalator and in the corridor to the exit. Everywhere they walk that is close to other people, such as on the pavement of every street – in every shop – and on the bus. At work, in school, in a public toilet. Get it??

How often have there been videos on TV or on online news media showing how droplets of moisture in your breath make a fine spray all around you when you breathe, cough or sneeze, and travel long distances when you breathe hard, while running, laugh out loud, blow out the smoke of a cigarette. This spray carries the virus if the virus is in your lungs. Everyone’s breath makes this spray all the time. Including yours! These visuals should be shown daily.

WEARING A MASK SHOULD BE COMPULSORY THE WHOLE TIME THAT PEOPLE ARE NOT AT HOME – AND ENFORCED. This would reduce transmission immediately and enormously.

We’re the 5th richest country in the world. Why do good masks cost so much money, so that most people can’t afford to buy them? They should cost pennies or be free, and be distributed everywhere.

Why does a country full of intelligent people not realise any of this? Because no one has told them all these things so bluntly. Not in school. Not in the newspapers. Not on social media. Not on television or the radio.

In a war, sirens go off when there is danger. In a pandemic, when breathing on other people is the danger, these messages should be like sirens. They should be shown constantly. They should make noise and use bright colours to attract attention to themselves. Not just one-directional arrows on the stairs, half-worn away by now and ignored.

Young people think they aren’t at risk, they’ve been told again and again that even if they get the virus they’re likely to be all right. So they don’t understand how much they may pose a risk to others, spread the virus to friends who spread the virus, especially affecting people over 60. Many people with the virus have no symptoms. Many of them may be infecting people completely unknowingly, as they walk close to them, breathe on them, again and again and again, day in, day out. Children of all ages were sent back to school and university, but many schools were not made safe, and now children are spreading the virus.

People have been told to stay home, not to gather in crowds. But remember the beaches in summer? And just look at the crowds in all the public parks and along the river, all the time, with so many not wearing masks.

We are one of the richest and most educated countries in the world. Yet our government has allowed this to happen, and we all need to act and make fundamental changes in what we are or are not doing about it. Starting with our own behaviour in public and shared spaces.

At the same time, we need a competent Prime Minister and government to take charge. We went from bad to worse getting Boris Johnson. He can’t handle it.

Lastly, and most importantly, we all need to listen to the scientists and public health experts who do know what they are talking about. I strongly recommend following Independent SAGE, who are currently calling for an immediate national lockdown. They are a group of scientists who are working together to provide independent scientific advice to the UK government and public on how to minimise deaths and support Britain’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. They do research, gather evidence, talk to journalists and write articles, and they broadcast a public report on the web and answer questions every Friday at 1:30pm for an hour. Journalists are finally starting to quote them. You can quote them on social media. You can share this blog too.

Make safe behaviour your new year’s resolution, and stick to it!!! So that we can indeed have the chance of a happy, healthy, safer year in 2021.

There is not just one “Jewish community”: a response to misplaced efforts to shut down political debate and discussion in the Labour Party

20/12/2020 Comments Off on There is not just one “Jewish community”: a response to misplaced efforts to shut down political debate and discussion in the Labour Party

by Marge Berer

[This blog was revised on 23, 26 and 31 December 2020 and 3 January 2021 to clarify some points that were criticised by readers and add links to relevant new information.]

The amendment to the tabled resolution was: “The CLP regrets in particular the sense of so many Jewish party members, Jewish MPs, and British Jews that Labour had turned away from them due to anti-semitic acts and statements by a small number of party members who do not represent the vast majority of Labour members, supporters, and voters.”

It is beside the point what the original resolution was that led to this amendment being tabled, but it does matter that this amendment was not passed by the meeting as it contradicted the main resolution. What also matters is that it put on the table an issue that is dividing the Party, one that urgently needs to be confronted and resolved. I am very sorry that this “expression of regret” was felt to be necessary. But I am writing this to try and explain why I do not support what it says.

First, let me identify myself. I’m 74 years old, from the USA by birth; I came to live in London in the 1970s, and I have been an active member of the Labour Party since that time. I later became a British citizen, though I’m still seen as a foreigner and still feel like one myself.

I’m Jewish, raised to be religious, with grandparents who were immigrants to the USA at the turn of the last century from four different Eastern European countries. I am not religious, but I identify as Jewish when asked, including when asked for my race – when I tick “White Other” and add “Jewish” on forms.

I’m not religious, but I define much of my political thinking as Jewish, by which I mean I have been strongly influenced by the left-wing politics of many Jewish writers and thinkers, and specifically their emphasis on the overarching importance of justice. I identify the importance of justice as a Jewish concept, though obviously it is not only a Jewish concept. It is very important for me, probably more important than any other single influence on my political views alongside a feminist perspective.

The amendment quoted above identifies the highly unfortunate and widely articulated response of some members of the “Jewish community” in Britain to the Labour Party in the past few years. Nevertheless, it ignores the fact that there are many members of the Labour Party who are Jewish, myself among them, and many other British people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who do NOT think that the Labour Party has turned away from us. Who know that the vast majority of Labour Party members are not anti-semitic, and who believe that the Labour Party has been demonised by people who do not wish the Party well, and who have made accusations of rampant anti-semitism in the Party in order to discredit the Party. There is also no doubt that many good people, Jewish and not Jewish, believe those accusations. And it is a sad fact that when people like me try to explain why this is wrong, we are often not believed and have had doors slammed in our faces.

Anti-semitism exists in our society; it is historically part of many people’s learned prejudices. I grew up with a mother who was very religious, even when she was a child. She was in her teens and twenties when fascism became rife in Europe and Hitler came to power. I was born just after the War. It was pounded into my head from a very young age that I was different, that everyone believed that I was different, Jews and non-Jews alike, that anti-semitism was everywhere and would never go away, and that I could never trust anyone who was not Jewish. I rebelled against this world view as an adolescent, as it horrified me. I read a lot about these issues and have continued to reject this world view with every political bone in my body. I am lucky that my experience in the world has not been reflected in that picture. Nor has it been my experience in the Labour Party – on the contrary. And I am far from an isolated case.

The so-called “Jewish community” (when was the last time you heard talk of the “Christian community”?) is not a monolithic group with only one world view or only one political perspective or only one opinion about everything that is happening in the world. The Jewish Board of Deputies does not represent us all or speak for us all, nor did anyone elect or empower them to do so, officially or unofficially. They are as politically motivated as the rest of us, just as the Pope and every other religious and secular leader, for good or otherwise.

Anti-semitism, like racism, like hate speech, is a form of discrimination whose intention is to cause identifiable harm. That is the reason it is against the law. In the Equality Act 2010, it says that, “by law, [people] must not discriminate against, harass or victimise [people] on the basis of a number of protected characteristics, including race and religion”. This is quoted in the EHRC Report on page 4. The Equality Act 2010 includes “religion and belief” as protected characteristics, among many others such as age, sex, disability, marriage, and civil partnership. It says: “A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if, because of a protected characteristic, A treats B less favourably than A treats or would treat others.” Whether or not specific behaviours are anti-semitic under the Equality Act is not just a matter of anyone’s personal opinion, it requires examination under the terms of that law.

These issues, as well as well-intentioned but totally inadequate definitions of anti-semitism, have for several years now divided people, causing distress, anger, misunderstanding and despair, both inside and outside the Labour Party.

Keir Starmer and David Evans have attempted to short-circuit (or bury) this problem by dictat, by ordering us not to discuss, query or criticise – let alone reject – the EHRC Report, the IHRA definition of antisemitism, or the so-called ten commandments of the Jewish Board of Deputies – and by suspending a growing list of people and threatening them/us with being kicked out of the Party for disobeying. Yet these conversations are crucial. No one can resolve these disagreements, let alone achieve unity, by taking away the right to question, debate and disagree, let alone by censorship, threats or punishment. This stance is unethical, short-sighted and doomed to failure. But above all, it is missing the point.

The real issue is this: the “Jewish community” has been engaged in a civil war throughout my lifetime, and even before that. Too many people who are not Jewish do not seem to realise this, let alone the seriousness and extent of it. The cause is the existence of profoundly differing political views on the political behaviour and policies of the state of Israel, and whether or not Jewish identity requires unquestioning loyalty to Israel. My whole life as a Jewish person has been affected by this, and no one can nay-say the importance of this in regard to any accusation of anti-semitism today.

As a child, I put pennies in a tin box to plant trees in Israel. A green and fertile Israel was contrasted with the dry and empty desert of all the “Arab” lands. I grew up being told that if I was rejected by my own country because of anti-semitism, Israel was there for me, I was automatically a citizen. Kibbutz life – communal life – was made to sound like heaven, or as close as one could get. All Israeli Jews were heroes and freedom fighters; all Palestinians, all Arabs, were terrorists. And so on and on… The facts are other.

The most important facts underlying today’s contentious debates, as I see it, are these: Israel is a State, with a capital S. Statehood confers certain universal obligations, including those laid down in international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which every country that has ratified it must adhere to (see the United Nations website on this subject). That includes Israel, who ratified the ICCPR about 30 years ago. The ICCPR Part I, Article 1.1, says: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Israel wants to be seen as a “Jewish state”. But Israel is not a religion, it is a State, and it is not ONLY and never was ONLY a place where ONLY Jewish people were born and live, romanticised in the phrase: “the home of the Jewish people”. Not now, not 100 years ago, and not 4,000 years ago either. Yet Israeli law now says it is – in the 2018 Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which says: “The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People” (Basic Principles 1c). This is a gross violation of the ICCPR. Millions of Palestinians were born in that land and have had children there, both before after after Israel gained statehood. (On 2 January 2021, Haaretz published an article about Avraham Burg, who has served as Israel’s Knesset speaker, and interim president and head of the Jewish Agency, and who is asking Israel to annul his registration as a Jew because of the discrimination present in this “Basic Law”. The Haaretz article is subscriber only, but it can be accessed in full here.)

When Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour Party, the Party supported the fact of the right to citizenship of Palestinians who were born in Israel-Palestine and/or born to Palestinian parents, millions of whom have been living as “refugees” in camps and as exiles in Europe, North America and many other countries since 1948 or 1967. No one who knows this history can deny that Israel is violating international human rights conventions with almost complete impunity, under the protection of one US president after another.

That is where the real problem lies today, and it is the basis of the civil war I am talking about inside the “Jewish community” – because some of us, that is, some of us who are Jewish, refuse to condone this state of affairs, while others want everyone else to believe we are “bad Jews” for doing so.

The fact is that Jewish people like me have long been called “self-hating Jews”, which is equated with being anti-semitic. How is it that Jewish people can be accused of and condemned for anti-semitism? My mother called me a self-hating Jew from the time I was an adolescent. Both because I do not practise the religion and because I support the right of Palestinians to their own land, citizenship and self-determination. I have been accused of self-hatred year in and year out for believing in justice. Yet justice, to have any meaning at all, must be available to everyone equally. A very Jewish concept.

By implication, however, if you are Jewish, you must hold the political position that human rights matter only for Jewish Israelis, not for everyone in Israel-Palestine. For anyone who believes in human rights and justice, this is untenable.

Let me be perfectly clear, the State of Israel must support the human rights of everyone, including everyone with a just claim to citizenship. I do not support Israel’s claim to be a Jewish State because any State in which only one religious group has a right to citizenship is discriminatory; it is against international human rights law. There are only a few other countries in the world today that claim or seek to be a State based on only one religion – the Vatican, for example. And India, where Narendra Modi is annihilating and displacing and impoverishing millions of Indian and Kashmiri Muslims while the world sits by watching in near-total silence. Read Arundhati Roy’s history of that decades-long tyranny. This is not about being Jewish or Catholic or Hindu or Muslim; it’s about the responsibility of being a State, and about the crime of legalising discrimination that leads to state-sponsored violence and state-sponsored denial of human rights, among which the right to citizenship and to your own land are vital civil and political rights.

Read Edward Said (a Palestinian historian). Read Raja Shehadeh, whose books about walking in the hills of Palestine trace the history of the increasing illegal occupation of Palestinian land – acre by acre, tree by tree, to the point where almost all the land had been stolen by the time Palestinian citizenship was formally revoked. Read the history from both sides of the wall that was built. Then let’s talk again.

If Keir Starmer and David Evans think they can whitewash global politics on their own personal say-so, based on what the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the right-wing Jewish media, and certain Jewish MPs tell them – all of whom appear to have in common that they support Israel no matter what Israel does or does not do – they need to think again.

My uncle, who has been dead for many years now, a patriot who fought in the US Army in World War II and who was there to help to liberate the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, always said: “My country: right or wrong.” I can understand why, looking back, because he came home from Germany alive. But that stance is the source of all the silence in the face of all the injustice in the world, including standing up for the value of some human lives while totally rejecting others.

Expelling people from the Labour Party, kicking them out of the Shadow Cabinet, removing the Whip from them, telling us that we cannot discuss or criticise documents that deserve to be queried and challenged, if not downright rejected… these also represent gross injustice. They are not the way forward for the Labour Party, but anti-democratic and suicidal.

31st Special Session of the UN General Assembly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic (3-4 December 2020, 14 December 2020)

16/12/2020 Comments Off on 31st Special Session of the UN General Assembly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic (3-4 December 2020, 14 December 2020)

Report and comments, by Marge Berer, 16 December 2020

All sessions are available on: http://webtv.un.org/

This Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was originally scheduled as a two-day event on 3-4 December 2020. On both days, it began at 9:30am New York time and ended late at night. The intention was to give every member of the United Nations the opportunity to make a statement to the General Assembly about what is happening in their countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There were also three panels on the second day with speakers and interactive question-and-answer between governments and panellists. In the event, in addition to opening and closing statements, only about 70 of the 160 governments who had asked to speak were able to make a statement during the two days, while none of the six NGOs who had also pre-recorded statements was able to do so. The three panels took place on the second day as scheduled. To fit everyone else in, a further session was scheduled for 14 December 2020, starting at 3pm New York time. Links to all these sessions are provided below. This has been an incredible event to listen too, and very worth watching as much of it as possible, above all the three panels though the whole event gave them far more context and meaning.

Each government statement was a maximum of five minutes. Almost all statements were pre-recorded and shown on video, introduced by the UN Country representative who was in the UNGA hall in New York. Many of the statements were by countries’ top leaders; others were by ministers of state, mainly health or development ministers.

Country Statements – Wearing their most formal, official clothes, not a hair out of place. standing behind a podium or a table or a desk, well-rehearsed, almost without emotion, surrounded by their national flags and/or national symbols, over two long days and nights some 70+ leaders made pre-recorded statements about how their countries were faring after having been hit for the best part of a year by Covid-19. What they articulated, with few exceptions, was a picture of a disaster, shared by all, and a heartfelt call for mutual support and help. They also revealed the extent of unpreparedness, lack of know-how and helplessness in the face of a virus that is transmitted by people breathing on each other.

As perhaps never before, world leaders called for solidarity, actually using the word “solidarity” again and again. Solidarity, preparedness, mitigation, resilience, connectivity, cooperation were called for. As regards finance, debt postponement, debt relief and debt cancellation were all called for – as well as the need for transparency, addressing corruption, and for the cessation of all wars in order for all countries to recover in terms of their economies, food production, education and health care. There were descriptions of health systems unable to cope, which had already been on their knees before the pandemic began, and now were worse. There were concerns that there was not going to be enough food, there was even talk of the threat of starvation among the poorest, a problem that had been relegated to history, and calls for urgent financial support for economies that have suffered terrible blows. Including from countries where climate disasters, in-migration and out-migration have been taking place as well.

In relation to vaccines, everyone who spoke talked about the importance of treating the vaccines as a global public good. A “global public good” means: no patents, no profits, no hoarding. Another definition given was: free of charge to the public, fairly distributed and based on need. There was a call for 20% of the populations of ALL countries to be vaccinated initially, as a first round to cover the most vulnerable people, rather than vaccinating everyone in a few (rich) countries, as would be “normal” if the usual “who can pay wins”/“every man for himself” behaviour was allowed. There were calls for ending discrimination, for equity, for universal health coverage, for promoting sustainable development and leaving no one behind – bringing together all the UN’s interlinking programmatic aims.

There was also evidence presented of unprecedented cooperation taking place between researchers and scientists across the world, the open sharing of information, and an agreement between a large majority of countries – called the COVAX initiative – that has been in the planning for much of this year and will soon begin to be implemented. Equally crucially, speakers identified the close links between the climate crisis, global public health exigencies, addressing grave setbacks in economic development due to the pandemic, and promoting and expanding the green economy as the only way to address what has led to this pandemic and will cause future pandemics, predicted to be coming (just as Covid-19 was predicted already in 2016).

Programme: Opening Statement

Opening of the 31st Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (3-4 December 2020)

Plenaries (3-4 December 2020)

(Part 1) 2nd Plenary Meeting – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (3-4 December 2020)

(Part 2) 2nd Plenary Meeting – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (3-4 December 2020)

(Part 3) General Debate of the 31st Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (3-4 December 2020)

Panels

Panel 1 – The UN System Response to COVID-19 – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (4 December 2020)

Moderator: – Melissa Fleming, Under Secretary General for Global Communication
Panellists: – Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organization
– Mr Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator
– Ms Michelle Bachelet Jeria, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
– Mr Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme
– Mr Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

– Ms Inger Ashing, CEO, Save the Children International

– Dr Asha Mohammed, Kenya Red Cross Society

This discussion took stock of the UN system’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It examined comprehensive and coordinated responses of UN entities and partners, focusing on the most vulnerable people and those disproportionally impacted in different operational contexts, including those in low-resource settings, conflict situations, and displaced communities. The role of, and impact on, women and girls was a focus, particularly women as front-line responders. The discussion outlined what has worked well, identify operational and policy gaps as well as lessons learned. It highlighted actions required for the continued immediate humanitarian and health response, protection of human rights, and the launch of urgent economic recovery and social protection measures.

Mark Lowcock, Michele Bachelet, and Achim Steiner were especially excellent on this panel.

A selection of points made by panellists during the session:

270 million people are marching toward starvation – funds have been provided to address this in 2020 but not yet for 2021. It will be catastrophic if funds are not available for 2021. A dozen countries are already at risk. The richer nations are not responding in a way that is commensurate with the need. One of three possible scenarios is 1 billion people living in extreme poverty by 2030. Another is the opposite. Other disasters have not stopped. The climate crisis still threatens the whole planet.

235 million people on the planet may not survive the current humanitarian crises. Poverty is increasing, hunger will grow, major famine threatens, hundreds of millions of children are out of school, and violence against women and girls due to the shocking behaviour of men has been increasing.

$4 billion has been raised from UN members to try and inform everyone on the planet about the virus and how to protect themselves. Social protection payments have been available for 2 billion people and more… yet the challenge is even greater.

It is important not to develop the Covid-19 vaccine at the expense of routine vaccination.

Programmes to protect women & girls are getting the least funding.

Significant shakeout among the NGO sector, many are not sure they will continue to be funded or survive, half of African NGOs are not sure they will survive.

Refugees are particularly vulnerable as well as the millions of people who host them, often in very poor countries of the world where most refugees are being hosted. They need to be considered with a special focus.

The UN Secretary-General has appealed for a global ceasefire in all wars.

Covid-19 is also a child’s rights crisis. There has been a 15% increase in children living in households with financial crisis. Many are not returning to school, many of whom are migrants on the move, and many others are girls. There are 1 billion children aged 2-17 who face violence of all kinds every year.

Women and girls know what they need. We need to listen and respond.  

Stopping the virus is not just developing vaccines. We have to stop the virus from jumping from one person to another; that is the existing treatment that everyone can practise.

We need to vaccinate some people in all countries, not all people in some countries.

We need to intensify cooperation and strengthen the architecture of health systems, promote peace and justice. We cannot walk away from the inequities and vulnerabilities that this virus has exposed. Human behaviour has to change, discover mutual respect, solidarity. We need trusted leaders who will encourage people to participate and become part of the solution. Common humanity is what will bring about change. The IMF says $2.5 trillion dollars will be needed to support developing countries, but the money is not yet forthcoming at that level.

Small island states’ economic situation is among the worst in the last 9-10 months. Being a small country in a large world means [sometimes!] being ignored. A more robust international system is needed.

More than 11 million girls are at risk of not going back to school after the pandemic. See the UNESCO video.

Categorising countries as low- or middle-income countries is not adequate for deciding whether to provide funding in these new circumstances, when for example there are hurricanes and help is needed. [Feminists have also said this for a long time regarding countries where women’s issues are treated very poorly but the country is middle income and there is no longer funding available.]

Many NGOs put forward questions to this panel but they could not be heard or answered as time ran out.

Panel II: The Road to a COVID-19 Vaccine – a Global Public Good – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (4 December 2020)

Moderator: Lyse Doucet, BBC Presenter and Chief International Correspondent
Panellists – Part I: The Science
– Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization
– BioNTech: Prof Uğur Şahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci
– Prof Sarah Gilbert, Oxford University/AstraZeneca [Pre-recorded video by Adar Poonawalla, Chief Executive Officer, Serum Institute of India]
Panellists – Part II: Vaccines for All
– Dr Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer of GAVI
– Ms Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund
– Dr Richard Hatchett, Chief Executive Officer, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)
– Sir Andrew Witty, WHO Special Envoy for ACT-Accelerator – on video

Significant progress has been made in developing new tools and strategies in the fight against COVID-19, including vaccines, as the result of unprecedented international collaboration, much-needed investments, and world-class scientific efforts in research and development. The world is at a critical acceleration point in the vaccine development and deployment timeline, poised to turn the corner into the vaccine era of the COVID-19 pandemic. The objective of this dedicated discussion on a Covid-19 vaccine was to breakdown the process of vaccine development and address the ‘infodemic’ around it in publicly digestible terms. How many vaccines are currently being tested and at which stages in the process is each one? How will vaccines be produced and distributed? How is the multilateral system working with governments and private sector partners to ensure the equitable distribution of, and access to, a Covid-19 vaccine as a global public good? How are the financial resources required to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 tools, including a vaccine, being mobilized? What other testing and treatments need to be readily accessible, pending the universal access to vaccines?

This was a fantastic panel. If you watch nothing else, watch all three panels. In all three cases, questions from countries from the floor of the sessions and responses to them by panellists were also very informative.

It was reported that an agreement had been reached that all countries should have access to a Covid-19 vaccine and all countries should initially be able to vaccinate 20% of their populations. One government and UN body after another who spoke during those two long days called for the vaccines to be treated as a “global public good”.

A first step, said the People’s Vaccine Alliance, would be to support South Africa and India’s proposal to the World Trade Organization Council to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments until everyone is protected.

COVAX is the ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to Covid-19 tests, treatments and vaccines. It is one of three pillars of the Covid-19 response launched in April 2020 by the World Health Organization, European Commission and France. It was endorsed by 167 countries, in two ways. Seventy-five countries submitted expressions of interest to protect their own populations and those of other nations through joining the COVAX Facility, a mechanism designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines worldwide. Those 75 countries agreed to partner with 92 low- and middle-income countries who would be supported to access tests, treatments and vaccines through voluntary donations to Gavi–the Vaccine Alliance, thus involving two-thirds of the world.

This initiative was described in those early days as a ‘tremendous vote of confidence’ in the effort to ensure truly global access to Covid-19 vaccines, once they were developed.

Since this event, the People’s Vaccine Alliance have called for “a transformation in how vaccines are produced and distributed, and for pharmaceutical corporations to allow the Covid-19 vaccines to be produced as widely as possible by sharing their knowledge free from patents. Instead, some companies are protecting their monopolies and putting up barriers to restrict production and drive up prices, leaving us all in danger. No one company can produce enough for the whole world. So long as vaccine solutions are kept under lock and key, there won’t be enough to go around.” They have called for

  • Ensure the vaccine is purchased at true cost prices and provided free of charge to people.
  • Ensure the vaccine is sold at affordable prices.
  • Prevention of monopolies on vaccine and treatment production, by making public funding for research and development conditional on research institutions and pharmaceutical companies freely sharing all information, data, biological material, know-how and intellectual property.
  • Implementation of fair allocation of the vaccine, which prioritizes health workers and other at-risk groups in all countries.
  • Ensure full participation of governments in developing countries as well as civil society from north and south in decision-making fora about the vaccines (and other Covid-19 technologies) and ensure transparency and accountability of all decisions.

Panel III: Resilience and Recovering Better from Covid-19 – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) Pandemic (4 December 2020)

Moderator:

– Femi Oke – International journalist

Panellists:
– Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organization / Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, Deputy Director General, World Health Organization
– Dr Natalia Kanem, Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund
– Ms Mari Pangestu, Managing Director, Development Policy and Partnerships, World Bank
– Ms Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director, UN Women
– Mr Guy Ryder, Director-General, International Labour Organization
– Mr Robert Piper, Assistant Secretary-General, UN Development Coordination
– Mr Pavan Sukhdev, President, WWF International / UNEP Goodwill Ambassador

Member States/Observers registered to ask a question:

Barbados (on behalf of CARICOM), Canada (on behalf of a group of Member States), China, European Union (on behalf of a group of Member States), Russia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania

This discussion examined the socio-economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and considered the path toward a resilient recovery, including the requisite preparedness for future threats. There was a focus in trade and finance, including inclusive stimulus and recovery packages, addressing debt crises ensuing from the pandemic, mobilizing investment that support sustainable solutions and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The discussion highlighted opportunities for accelerating the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals through recovery plans and policies that favour inclusion, sustainability and resilience – such as expanding universal protection; promoting green jobs; making sustainable food systems; and increasing digital connectivity.

31st Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (14 December 2020)

In this added plenary, seven further videos were shown: five from Member States, one from the Holy See and one from Palestine. In addition, 16 statements from Member States were delivered by Permanent Representatives from the UNGA floor. After two hours of these statements, video statements from three civil society organisations were also shown, including Marianne Haslegrave for the Commonwealth Medical Trust, who raised issues of violence against women, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and unsafe abortion.

Overall, some 129 speeches were made. The fragility of developing country health systems was again noted by one speaker after another. Awareness that no country, rich or poor, can resolve this situation alone was high throughout the three days and nights of this special session. Many countries supported the call for the vaccines to be treated as global public goods, and many supported the Secretary-General’s call for a cessation of war.

A harsher reality is threatening, however

In addition to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey bringing the Special Session on 14 December to an ignominious end by angry statements against each other, a harsher reality intervened not once but twice from outside the UN General Assembly.

On 8 December, in London, UK, a major spending cut in development aid, announced by the government of the United Kingdom, was reviewed by the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee, which was recorded on Parliament TV Live. This spending cut was one of the first major development aid policy changes made by the UK government in the wake of its decision to dissolve the Department for International Development. This policy change involved reducing the UK’s longstanding legal commitment of 0.7% of GNI for development aid to 0.5%. The Committee were told this represented something like a £4 billion per year cut in the UK’s development aid, which would devastate the poorest recipient countries, such as Yemen and Afghanistan, the most. The UK, it was said, will end the year with a deficit of £400 billion pounds, but not only because of Covid-19; therefore, a £4 billion cut in development aid would do nothing to alleviate that. So the Committee was asked: Is this cut using the pandemic as a cloak for re-prioritising money intended for international aid, e.g. to use it for defence spending, which is due to be increased.

The second even more serious setback was sabotage of the COVAX agreements. Several vaccines are reaching the end of initial trials and some have been submitted for approval and come or are about to come “on the market”… What has happened?

On the morning of 9 December 2020, the BBC published this report: “Rich countries hoarding Covid-19 vaccines”. Based on a report prepared by Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Oxfam, Global Justice Now, and others – it says poor countries are set to miss out, that there is not enough vaccine to go round being produced, and that pharmaceutical companies should share their technology to make sure more is produced.

The report also said that rich countries have bought enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations three times over if all those vaccines are approved for use. Canada, for example, has ordered enough vaccines to protect each Canadian five times. And even though rich nations represent just 14% of the world’s population, they have bought up 53% of the most promising vaccines so far, according to data from eight leading vaccine candidates in Phase 3 trials that have done substantial deals with countries worldwide.

Unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world may not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for a long time. Five of the 67 countries who may be left behind – Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan and Ukraine – have reported nearly 1.5 million cases of Covid-19 between them.

So much for this global public good. This adds a closing twist of the knife to the UNGA Special Session proceedings, by governments that would of course not announce this from the floor of the United Nations. But it only means we will have to fight for it, as we do for everything good.

To close on a slighter more upbeat note, WHO D-G Dr Tedros has announced on Twitter:

“Today, @WHO launched the Universal Health Coverage Compendium, a set of tools to help country-level policy makers develop packages of the health services needed to achieve #HealthForAll: http://bit.ly/34aLZro.

For further reports arising from the Special Session, see www.ngosbeyond2014.org

Three new papers on FGM worth reading

06/12/2020 Comments Off on Three new papers on FGM worth reading

  1. Re-thinking the Zero Tolerance Approach to FGM/C: the debate around female genital cosmetic surgery, by Janice Boddy, Current Sexual Health Reports, 21 November 2020 

The main point of this paper is that there is a growing phenomenon of young women having “cosmetic labiaplasty” in Europe, the Americas, and Antipodes, carried out by medically trained gynaecologists and plastic surgeons, which is based on the aesthetic belief that if the labia minora protrude beyond the labia majora this is deemed ugly, masculine, and ‘abnormal’, and they should be “trimmed”. The kind of surgery involved is the same as what the World Health Organization calls female genital mutilation type II. The fact that for the mainly white, western women having this form of surgery it is called cosmetic surgery and is legal, while for African women who have it, it is called genital mutilation and is criminalised, is the focus of this paper. The author, who is a Canadian anthropologist, also identifies the fact that in all the cultures where these very similar phenomena are happening, it is strong beliefs about what is aesthetically acceptable that influence the practice.

2. New advisor missed opportunity to celebrate FGM decline in UK, by Brid Hehir, Shifting Sands, 13 October 2020.

The main point of this paper is this: A small but important piece of original research in the British Medical Journal, which should have received more publicity, was published just a week before the International Day of the Girl Child this year. The research confirms that few young children (103 cases) are presenting with FGM in Britain (or Ireland) and none were found in Northern Ireland. Moreover, most of the cases still being reported are historic – 70% were carried out prior to the children arriving in Britain — indicative of changes in practice in communities that used to believe in FGM, which has been recognised in those communities in the UK for quite a few years now, though not acknowledged by everyone who is a UK activist opposing FGM. 

3. How to ensure policies and interventions rely on strong supporting facts to improve women’s health: the case of female genital cutting, using Rosling’s Factfulness approach, by Birgitta Essen, Luce Mosselmans. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2020 Dec 11. 

This paper applies Rosling et al’s framework from the book Factfulness, which aims to inspire people to use strong supporting facts in their analyses of issues and to fight dramatic instincts. The abstract says: In this paper, the Factfulness framework is applied to female genital cutting (FGC), in order to identify possible biases and promote evidence-based thinking in studies on FGC, clinical guidelines on management of FGC, and interventions aimed at abolishing FGC. The Factfulness framework helps to acknowledge that FGC is not a uniform practice and helps address that variability. This framework also highlights the importance of multidisciplinarity to understand causalities of the FGC issue, which the authors argue is essential. This paper highlights the fact that FGC is a dynamic practice, with changes in the practice that are ongoing, and that those changes are different in different contexts. The “zero tolerance” discourses on FGC fails to acknowledge this… 

These papers all raise issues that a range of authors from several world regions have been writing about for the past 15-20 years. I was able to share that work and give a lot of attention to it as the editor of Reproductive Health Matters. These papers can be found on the first 2 pages of articles listed at this link (keyword FGM) and this link (keyword cosmetic surgery), though some items in these lists are on other issues. The papers cover not just genitals but also breasts and the meanings of altering the body to achieve beauty. Definitions of what is considered beautiful in girls and women in every culture create a lot of pressure to conform. See especially one article called Make me beautiful, by Omid Salehi, interviewed by Negar Esfandiary. Some practices carry health risks and the risk of complications. To me, part of the challenge of feminism for girls and women is that we should not feel we have to risk our health or even our lives to achieve what others want us to believe constitutes beauty, let alone what is defined as essential for being female. It seems we must keep coming back to these same issues with each generation as the forces that create this pressure often come from those who hope to gain something themselves.

Marge Berer, 6 December, revised 13 December 2020

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