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As Courts Restore Operations, COVID-19 Creates a New Normal

For more than 230 years, the federal Judiciary has spanned the horseback era to the internet age, but in one key respect it has never changed. Just as in the nation’s earliest years, the Constitution still requires federal courts to conduct many critical legal proceedings in person.

When coronavirus (COVID-19) cases spiked in March, court practices changed almost overnight, relying on virtual hearings that make it possible to conduct most court-related activities without coming to the building. Now, with courts seeking to restore in-person proceedings, one thing already is clear: Justice in a pandemic environment will have a very different look and feel.

“On August 24, when we start our first trials, jurors will enter courtrooms that look nothing like what they would expect,” said Chief Judge James K. Bredar, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. “Plexiglass shields erected throughout. No public gallery. All participants masked, and lawyers wearing headsets, so they look like air traffic controllers. Stand-alone jury chairs spread across the back and one side of the courtroom, all at least six feet apart.”

Like federal judges across the country, Bredar is reinventing his courtroom in an attempt to achieve two vital interests: protecting public health from COVID-19 infection while also ensuring Constitutional rights that date back centuries. Despite obvious risks and public anxieties, he and other judges said they are working through the challenges.

“It’s a balancing act, and a tough one, but balancing acts are not unfamiliar to judges,” Bredar said. “When the proceedings begin, the trials will have a familiar structure and cadence, with counsel making opening statements and presenting evidence in the ordinary, time-honored sequence. At their core, these will still be orderly jury trials, and easily recognized as such.”

New courtroom layouts are among the many ways courts are seeking to limit the risk of COVID-19 infection.

In Manhattan, federal court staff and visitors must now fill out an online health survey and be cleared by a digital temperature reader before they can access the building. In Boston, the District of Massachusetts has begun pre-paying a nearby parking lot, so that members of the public do not have to depend on public transit. In Boise, the court’s air-conditioning system is pumping more air into the building from outdoors, to keep exhaled breath from stagnating.

Courts have moved forward, and sometimes backward, as local COVID-19 caseloads have fallen and then risen again.

In early June, the Northern District of Texas held one of the first federal jury trials since the pandemic threat escalated. The trial unfolded without a hitch, and jurors reported feeling safe, but in early July, additional jury trials in the Dallas courthouse were postponed for the rest of the month as new COVID-19 cases spiked.

“It’s going to be baby steps. We’re all doing the best we can,” said Chief Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn, of the Northern District of Texas. “The ideals of justice and rule of law are vital to our country, and those principles cannot stop. But we need to temper a desire to go full speed ahead with a focus on safety.”

Overshadowing much of the planning by courts is the U.S. Constitution. Even in a health crisis, the Sixth Amendment guarantees rights that must be provided in an open court of law. These include the right to confront accusers and the right to confer confidentially with counsel. Most critically, jury trials must be conducted in person, and the backlog is rapidly growing.

“We have more than 80 criminal trials waiting, everything since last February,” said Robert M.  Farrell, clerk of court for the District of Massachusetts. “We normally have about 20 cases that are trial ready. Starting in September, we plan to have four jury trial courtrooms and one magistrate judge courtroom for initial appearances.”

In their efforts to balance safety and justice, judges and clerks of court say they have gained expertise in such arcane topics as building air flow, and many have consulted with epidemiologists.

In the Southern District of New York, the court’s safety strategy begins, but does not end, with a required health questionnaire and a no-contact digital temperature check for all employees and visitors before they enter the courthouse.

Everyone must wipe their hands with disinfectant, and protective masks are mandatory in all public areas. Elevator ridership is severely restricted, and staff are starting as early as 6 a.m., or as late as 10 a.m., to avoid crowded trains. 

“Before employees got on public transportation, there was a lot of anxiety about how commuting was going to work,” said Edward Friedland, district executive for the Southern District of New York. “Those so far who have ridden on public transportation generally have been okay with it.”

Before entering the Southern District of New York, employees and visitors must obtain and flash a code verifying that they have submitted an online health questionnaire and meet court safety criteria.

While many courts are not requiring formal health screenings, social distancing is nearly universal. That already has posed challenges for minor hearings, involving just litigants and lawyers, who must sit apart from one another.

In addition to plexiglass, some courts have installed audio systems with headsets that enable clients and lawyers to whisper to each other, much as they would in a traditional courtroom, but from a safe distance.

Courts also have wrestled with the question of who must wear masks in the courtroom.

In Colorado, everyone—including lawyers, jurors, and witnesses—will be required to wear masks inside the courtroom. The court also will permit witnesses to be examined without masks, via video from a separate jury deliberation room that is not in use. 

Many other courts, citing the Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses, are requiring that witnesses not wear masks while testifying.

“The attorneys were very specific that that’s what they wanted,” said David C. Nye, chief judge of the District of Idaho, which has resumed jury trials. “They wanted to have the jurors see the witness’s face, to assess credibility.”

As in-person courtroom proceedings ramp up, the biggest cost of social distancing is the physical space that it requires. With participants forced to sit six feet apart, courts are using multiple courtrooms for one proceeding. This includes overflow rooms for the public to see or hear courtroom proceedings, and extra space for witnesses and jury deliberation.

An added complication is that many federal court districts have both large urban courthouses and smaller buildings in suburban and rural areas. Each courthouse must develop its own strategy for handling cases.

“One size likely will not fit all,” said Mark R. Hornak, chief judge of the Western District of Pennsylvania. “Our physical footprint in each of the divisions is quite different. Proceedings that can occur in our larger buildings may be handled differently, and in a different time frame, than in our smallest physical facility.”

For all the efforts to protect public health, Judiciary leaders acknowledge that the greatest uncertainty is beyond their control. On the question of whether the public, and even court staff, will trust that courthouses will be safe from infection, the jury literally is still out.

Judges and court clerks say that early jury trials have proceeded on schedule, but they are going to great lengths to assure jurors their health will be protected.

Bredar, who on Aug. 24 will preside over the District of Maryland’s first jury trial since March, has commissioned an educational video showing jurors the many steps being taken to make the district’s two courthouses safe. He also says the public needs to know how much they contribute to the delivery of impartial justice.

“For over two centuries, the federal courts have always remained open—through wartime, natural disasters, and even previous pandemics,” Bredar said. “It remains true now, because of the dedication of judges, court staff, attorneys, and members of the public, who dutifully continue to serve as jurors and witnesses.”

COVID-19: African countries urged to promote a safe return to school

School closures implemented to protect students from COVID-19, are hurting them in other ways, while the long-term impact of this disruption to education could create a “lost generation” in Africa, two UN agencies said on Thursday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF urged governments on the continent to promote a safe return to the classroom while also limiting spread of the virus.

“Schools have paved the way to success for many Africans. They also provide a safe haven for many children in challenging circumstances to develop and thrive,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. 

“We must not be blind-sided by our efforts to contain COVID-19 and end up with a lost generation. Just as countries are opening businesses safely, we can reopen schools. This decision must be guided by a thorough risk analysis to ensure the safety of children, teachers and parents and with key measures like physical distancing put in place.”

A WHO survey of 39 sub-Saharan African countries has revealed that schools are open in only six nations and partially open in 19.  Schools are closed in 14 nations, although 12 plan to resume classroom learning in September, the start of the academic year.

The disruption to education has resulted in poor nutrition, stress, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, childhood pregnancies, and overall challenges in the mental development of children.

UNICEF found violence against children has increased in Eastern and Southern Africa.  With 10 million children missing out on school meals, nutrition rates have decreased, with especially high risk among girls, particularly those who have been displaced or from low-income households.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has highlighted the potential long-term social and economic impact of shutdowns in sub-Saharan Africa, which could result in lifetime earning losses of $4,500 per child.

“The long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities”, said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern & Southern Africa, Mohamed M. Malick Fall. 

“When we balance the harm being done to children locked out of schools, and if we follow the evidence, it leads children back into the classroom.”

WHO, UNICEF and the International Federation of the Red Cross recently issued guidance on COVID-19 prevention and control in schools. 

It covers recommendations for physical distancing measures, such as staggering the beginning and end of the school day, spacing desks when possible, and providing handwashing facilities.  

“The long-term impact of extending the school shutdown risks ever greater harm to children, their future and their communities”, said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern & Southern Africa, Mohamed M. Malick Fall. 

“When we balance the harm being done to children locked out of schools, and if we follow the evidence, it leads children back into the classroom.”

While also recommending other important measures, such as regular handwashing and daily cleaning of surfaces, a recent report by the two UN agencies found millions of children attend schools that lack water and sanitation services.

In sub-Saharan Africa, only a quarter of schools have basic hygiene services while less than half have basic sanitation.

The COVID-19 pandemic thus provides an opportunity for investment and innovative thinking to address these shortages, according to the UN agencies.

Cuba to start clinical trials of potential coronavirus vaccine

Cuba kicks off clinical trials next week of a potential coronavirus vaccine called “Soberana 01” (“Sovereign 01”) developed by its state-run Finlay Institute, with results due in February, state-run media said on Wednesday (August 19).

The potential coronavirus vaccine will be delivered in two injections during the trials that will involve 676 people aged between 19 and 80 years and conclude on Jan. 11.

Cuba prides itself on its biopharmaceutical industry, begun by former revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, which is also an important hard currency earner and already produces several vaccines.

Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, told Cuban state news agency Prensa Latina that Cuba could even be one of the places it could choose to produce the vaccine from November onwards.

Authorities say their treatments for the new coronavirus have already helped it reduce mortality in sufferers.

They touted interferon long before other producers started hailing the merits of the decades-old antiviral agent that boosts immune system and say dozens of countries have expressed an interest in buying it.

The country of 11 million inhabitants has registered just a handful of deaths in the last few months, bringing the total to 88 deaths for 3,482 confirmed cases since the start of its outbreak in March.

Cuba has handled its outbreak in textbook fashion through contact tracing and isolation of potential asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, although cases have risen in recent weeks since it eased lockdown restrictions in the capital, prompting it to tighten them once more.

Bangladesh is ready to hold trials of potential COVID-19 vaccines developed by India and will receive early supplies of any successful candidate, officials said on Wednesday.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent his foreign secretary to Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka on Tuesday on a two-day visit to hold meetings with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and officials.

“Bangladesh is ready to collaborate in the development of a COVID vaccine, including its trial, and looks forward to early affordable availability of the vaccine when it is ready,” its foreign ministry said in a statement.

The release followed a meeting of the foreign secretary and his Indian counterpart Harsh Vardhan Shringla, during which Shringla had discussed India’s economies of scale in vaccine manufacturing with Bangladeshi officials, the statement said.

India is home to the world’s biggest vaccine making company, the Serum Institute of India, and is currently holding trials for three potential COVID-19 vaccines, including one licensed to AstraZeneca Plc by Oxford University.

Mexico has told Moscow it is eager to have Russia’s coronavirus vaccine once phase three testing for the product is complete, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Wednesday.

After a meeting with Russia’s ambassador to Mexico, Viktor Koronelli, Ebrard said on Twitter that he had communicated Mexico’s interest that phase three should be carried out “so as to have the vaccine as soon as possible in Mexico.”

Republic of Korea’s Green Cross Corp has received regulatory approval for phase II human clinical trials of its experimental coronavirus plasma treatment drug, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said on Thursday. The trials will test the safety and efficacy of the drug in 60 severe patients with underlying conditions like pneumonia, Green Cross said. Green Cross was allowed to skip phase I trials. Its therapy is the country’s first to enter phase II for COVID-19 plasma treatment.

Turkey is in talks with Russia, Germany, and China about conducting Phase 3 trials for coronavirus vaccines developed in those countries, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Wednesday.

Germany and China have applied to conduct the Phase 3 trials in Turkey and have presented pre-clinical trial results, while Ankara wants to see pre-clinical results from Russia before the trials, Koca said.

Speaking at a news conference in Ankara, he said there were 13 vaccines being developed in Turkey, three of which have gone beyond the animal testing phase.

Modern slavery in the United States: Sexual exploitation of women

Modern slavery refers to the sub-human working conditions to which millions of human beings are exposed, including forced labor, sexual servitude, trafficking in persons, imposed marriages and child labor. It implies the theft of work done by millions of people who would otherwise obtain earnings, and the denial of victims’ rights to fully participating in the political and social life of society.

This definition was offered by James Cockayne, director of the United Nations Center for University Policy Research, during an interview with teleSUR.

A report from the U.S. State Department states that trafficking in persons, trafficking in human beings, and modern slavery are general terms used to refer to actions taken to recruit, house, transport, supply or obtain a person with the intention of obliging them to perform forced labor or sexual acts, using force, fraud or coercion.

According to a study by the Walk Free Foundation (WFF), more than 400,000 persons in the U.S. live in modern slavery conditions.

This is a phenomenon that appears to be growing uncontrollably in the country, where trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual servitude and exploitation has become a lucrative business.

Nonetheless, as opposed to what many think, the majority of victims of sexual trafficking in the United States are not women brought to the country against their will. In fact, eight of every ten are U.S. citizens, BBC reports, adding that many are enslaved with the use of drugs and tattooed as pieces of merchandise, property of their exploiters.

The BBC notes that one major problem is that they are often misidentified as women offering sexual services of their own will.

Inter Press Service (IPS) has reported several high-profile cases recently of trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual exploitation in the United States.

One of these is that of mega-millionaire Jeffrey Epstein, who suspiciously committed suicide in police custody, awaiting trial on federal charges for directing a sexual trafficking operation involving underage girls and adolescents.

Another incident involved 16 members of the U.S. Marine Corps, who on July 25 were arrested on charges of trafficking in drugs and illegal transportation of undocumented Mexican immigrants.

As the COVID-19 epidemic ravages the nation, the FBI reports that its child exploitation and trafficking in persons unit is investigating several cases involving exploiters who “promote” their victims to attract clients.

ABC television news aired a report citing traffickers in New York who announce in their advertisements that the women they are exploiting, many underage, are virus-free and willing to wear face masks and gloves.

This pattern has been noted repeatedly, as reported, for example, by News4Jax in Jacksonville, Florida, where the sexual services trade has continued operations despite the epidemic and exploited women, in general, have no other means to pay for food and housing.

In San Diego, reports indicate that sexual trafficking generates illicit earnings of close to 810 million dollars a year; second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable illegal business.

Girls and women are particularly vulnerable, representing 99% of the victims exploited in the sexual industry and 58% in other sectors.

The U.S. government should use taxpayers’ money wasted on campaigns defaming other countries, to combat and resolve serious problems within the nation; give up efforts to discredit others and focus on the shameful realities within their own society to which they turn a blind eye.

Sen. Bill Cassidy tests positive for coronavirus

Sen. Bill Cassidy tested positive for the coronavirus, his office said in a statement Thursday.

The Louisiana Republican, who is a medical doctor, was tested for the virus after he learned he had been in contact with an individual who tested positive.

“I am strictly following the direction of our medical experts and strongly encourage others to do the same,” Cassidy said in a statement.

According to his office, Cassidy will quarantine for 14 days, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, and is “notifying those with whom he may have come into contact.” His office didn’t say whether the senator, 62, has symptoms, and if so, their severity.

Cassidy joins Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as the only senators to test positive for Covid-19. A dozen House members have also tested positive. Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Tim Kaine of Virginia announced they had tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, indicating the senators likely were infected with the virus earlier in the spring, when both reported having symptoms.

Lawmakers left Washington earlier this month for the annual summer recess, after Democratic leaders and the White House could not agree on a comprehensive coronavirus relief package. Absent an agreement, senators are slated to return to Capitol Hill after Labor Day.

WHO Europe head warns young people as COVID-19 infection rates soar

The World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge on Thursday called on young people to “spread fun, not the virus” as the number of COVID-19 infections steadily rise in the region by 26,000 daily.

Referencing a recent global study among those aged 15 to 24, Kluge pointed out during a press conference here that cases of COVID-19 have increased from a rate of 4.5 percent in that age group at the end of February to 15 percent in mid-July.

“Low risk does not mean no risk. No one is invincible and if you do not die from COVID-19, it may stick with your body like a tornado with a long tail,” said Kluge.

The director’s message comes as a second wave of infections gathers pace after the lull in infections during May and June.

“Every day now the European Region reports an average of over 26,000 new COVID-19 cases. This is due in part to the relaxation of public health and social measures, where authorities have been easing some of the restrictions and people have been dropping their guard,” said the WHO official.

The European Region currently has a registered total of 3.9 million cases, corresponding to 17 percent of the global total.

“Young people are at the forefront of the COVID-19 response, they are less likely to die than older people, but they can still be very seriously affected,” said Kluge.

Further concern over the safety of the young was the announcement that the WHO European Regional Office would be convening a virtual meeting for all 53 European countries on the re-opening of schools and COVID-19 on Aug. 31 “where concrete actions will be discussed to ensure children receive proper education in safe settings.”

Kluge also praised the many countries in the region that had become “smarter” by “targeting the virus instead of targeting society” and localizing shutdowns.

“We are learning how to apply smart, time-limited and risk-based measures, capable of reducing both the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on the wider society and economy,” he said. “We manage the virus and keep the economy running and an education system in operation.”

Published by jim

Curator of things...

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