News, December 23rd

3 police officers shot dead in central France: local media

Three police were shot dead and one wounded in central France on Wednesday, local media reported.

The police officers, who were responding to a call over domestic violence in a remote village in Puy-de-Dome department, were shot by a 48-year-old man when they attempted to rescue a woman who had found shelter on the roof of a house, the reports said.

The man then set fire to the house, which local firefighters were trying to put out, the reports said.

The woman, the reported victim of the domestic violence, has been rescued, the reports said.

Special forces still remained on site.

An effective remedy

The global labor market has experienced a very difficult period as the “COVID-19 storm” “swept away” many jobs, disturbing enterprises. Financial packages and measures have been introduced by many countries as remedies to “save” businesses and workers, in order to sustainably restore the job market.

Social blockade and isolation measures have seriously affected the economic and business activities of society and enterprises. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the pandemic has caused 81 million workers across the Asia-Pacific region to lose their jobs, women and young people are “suffering” the most. The number of jobs in Asia-Pacific fell 4.2% compared to the pre-COVID 19 period.

Due to the lower working hours, the average income of workers fell 9.9% in the first quarter of 2020, equivalent to a 3.4% decline in regional GDP. South Asia witnessed the highest rate of job loss, with nearly 50 million people, followed by East Asia (16 million people), Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, 14 million and 500,000, respectively. In Europe, many countries have seen record increases in unemployment. In the UK, in the three months to October 2020, the number of unemployed workers also increased to 370,000, with the unemployment rate increasing to 4.9%.

Meanwhile, Latin America and the Caribbean have also seen a huge “setback”, the effects of which will reverberate for at least a decade, in the labor market. The region has been in its biggest unprecedented employment crisis since the publication of labor market reports in 1994. A sharp rise in unemployment in Latin America and the Caribbean, with an increase of 2.5 percentage points from five years ago, from 8.1% to 10.6%, means the number of people unable to find work has increased by 5.4 million, and the total number of unemployed is 30.1 million, the highest level in recent decades. The ILO also forecasts that the unemployment rate in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2021 will also reach 11.2%, up 0.6% compared to 2020.

Employment is one of the “hottest” issues in the pandemic period because of the long-lasting crisis. Many countries must roll out job assistance packages, and adopt strategies to create more and better jobs when manufacturing operations are reactivated and the medical emergency is under control. Achieving economic growth with the employment issue solved is seen as the key solution to poverty reduction in the face of rising inequality due to the pandemic.

The UK has decided to extend its salary support program for workers affected by the pandemic, in the context of an uncertain future, economic stagnation and many individuals and businesses struggling in the winter. The German government has announced “unprecedented” assistance, with disbursements of up to EUR10 billion for companies and businesses adversely affected by lock-down measures. The French government has also announced a tax reduction policy for real estate owners to reduce rental rates for companies that have had to suspend operations due to the blockade.

In Asia, the Japanese government said it would consider extending the job subsidy program, expected to end later this year for businesses affected by the epidemic, in the context of the labor market in the country continuing to be unstable, with the unemployment rate rising continuously for seven months. In the first and second supplementary budget packages for the fiscal year 2020, the Japanese Government secured US$26.8 billion to implement its job subsidy program and has disbursed more than US$18 billion.

Although “painkillers” have been introduced by governments to “alleviate” losses caused by job losses, many workers are still struggling with accumulating difficulties and facing poverty, as about 80-90 million people could fall into extreme poverty in 2020 due to the epidemic. The low level of social security coverage and the limited capacity of institutions in many countries have made it difficult for companies and workers to bounce back.

The International Monetary Fund has proposed that governments should gradually shift from protecting old jobs to creating more new jobs, reducing measures such as salary subsidies, but instead increasing training skills so that more people can find new jobs. Policy-making should also focus on promoting job creation projects such as in green energy and infrastructure. These are considered “effective remedies” to help restore the labor market in a sustainable manner.

As Brexit deadline approaches, France warns against ‘bad concessions’ to UK

As Brexit talks between Britain and the European Union increasingly come down to the wire, with an end-of-year deadline approaching to secure a free trade deal, France is hitting the brakes — warning EU. negotiators not to be pressured by the ticking clock.

“We should not put ourselves, Europeans, under time pressure to finish by this hour or that day. Otherwise we would put ourselves in a situation to make bad concessions,” France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune told the BFM network, in remarks reported by The Associated Press.

The United Kingdom formally left the EU in January, having voted to leave in 2016. That departure triggered a transition period lasting until the year to allow for the two sides to come up with a free trade deal.

But talks have been bogged down as well as hampered by the global pandemic. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned Britons to prepare for no deal — which could lead to disruption at ports, tariffs on goods and potential shortages throughout the country.

Johnson himself has been involved in talks, heading to Brussels this month for talks with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, which have continued by phone since.

Britain has been pushing back against terms, including EU fishing rights in UK waters, that it sees as infringing on its sovereignty — one of the main issues of the 2016 vote. But the EU is similarly cautious of Britain being able to avoid cumbersome EU regulations on areas like the environment and gain a competitive edge.

“It’s vital that everybody understands that the UK has got to be able to control its own laws completely, and also that we are going to be able to control our own fisheries,” Johnson said recently.

Exacerbating matters in recent days is the new strain of corona-virus discovered in the UK, which quickly led to European countries limiting travel. France shut down its border for 48 hours, causing chaos for truck drivers in the UK port of Dover.

Negotiators have been trying to make progress on fishing rights in British waters and other competition issues, making a deal a possibility again.

However, according to Reuters, EU negotiator Michel Barnier told a closed-door gathering that the UK’s latest offer on fishing in British waters from 2021 was “totally unacceptable.”

Reuters reported that EU negotiators were prepared to cut the value of its fish catch in British waters by about 25%, but Britain wanted a 30-35% reduction. Meanwhile, the UK wants to limit EU access over three years, while the EU wants a six-year time frame.

Beaune, the French minister, also said fair competition rules were still a sticking point, even though the Associated Press reported that other EU officials said they were close to an agreement. He also said Brits need to respect EU rules for any such deal.

“Well, if the British come onto our market, well, they can respect our rules. It is elementary economic justice,” Beaune said. “We will not cede because of time pressure.”

Central African Republic: UN rights office warns of ‘escalating violence’ ahead of Sunday poll

Just days before elections in the Central African Republic (CAR), an uptick in armed violence is threatening the safety of civilians and their right to vote, according to the UN human rights office.

“We are deeply alarmed by reports of escalating violence stoked by political grievances and hate speech, resulting in the forced displacement of civilians, including to neighboring countries”, Liz Throssell, a Geneva-based spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said in statement on Wednesday.

Instability in CAR dates back decades, and violence has displaced hundreds of thousands in the country, which despite immense natural mineral wealth, is one of the poorest in the world.

With elections gearing up for 27 December, Ms. Throssell said that there have been “numerous reports of attacks against security forces, political candidates and election officials”.

Reportedly, clashes between armed groups and security forces have taken place across a wide area, including neighborhoods close to the capital, Bangui. 

“The UN Human Rights Office joins UN Secretary-General António Guterres in calling for all parties in the Central African Republic to put an end to the violence”, she said.

The OHCHR spokesperson reminded all parties, “including security forces and armed groups, as well as international and foreign forces”, that “they are bound to respect international humanitarian law and human rights law as applicable”.

“The protection of civilians is paramount”, she spelled out.

The UN Deputy Special Representative and Humanitarian Coordinator for CAR, Denise Brown, pushed back on unfounded rumors that armed groups had been marching on the capital, in an interview with UN News on Monday.

The OHCHR official reminded the signatories to the political agreement of February 2019, which includes political actors and armed groups, to abide by their commitment to respect human rights and not resort to violence to resolve disputes.

And she said that neighboring countries, the African Union, and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have “a central role to play” in ensuring a peaceful resolution of the pre-election crisis and contributing towards protecting the civilian population of CAR. 

Earlier this week, the G5, which includes the World Bank, European Union (EU), United States and Russia, called for the immediate and unconditional end to “coordinated offensives” on the part of armed groups and agitators, and scaremongering that is threatening the electoral process. 

They condemned all efforts to “force the country into a new political transition” in violation of the constitution and called on former President Francois Bozize and unnamed armed elements to ‘lay down their weapons immediately”. 

The group firmly condemned “all collusion between political actors and armed groups looking to create disorder and panic among the population” in a bid to deny them “their sovereign right to vote”.

To date, more than 1.8 million citizens have registered to vote and voting cards have been distributed throughout the country ahead of Sunday’s poll, according to the G5.

UN Special Representative Mankeur Ndiaye, who also heads the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the country (MINUSCA), reassured citizens over the weekend that UN peacekeepers would do their utmost to ensure the security of the electoral process and encouraged the people not to panic. 

The UN and its partners in the country have issued a strong message to armed groups and insist that the national poll will go ahead as planned.

France allows British cargo, passengers in after virus scare

Freight from Britain and passengers with a negative virus test began arriving on French shores Wednesday, after France relaxed a two-day blockade over a new virus variant that had isolated Britain, stranded thousands of drivers and raised fears of shortages.

Associated Press reporters witnessed a ferry pulling into the French port of Calais before dawn and trains carrying freight and car passengers were allowed to cross to the continent beneath the English Channel again.

People arriving from Britain are required to have a virus test capable of detecting the new variant, according to a late-night agreement reached after 48 hours of frenzied negotiations among French, British and EU authorities.

European nations and others around the world began slamming borders shut to Britain on Sunday, a day after the UK prime minister announced that the new variant was mostly responsible for an enormous surge in new infections in London and southern England and he was imposing tight new lock-down restrictions.

The company that runs the Euro-tunnel said Wednesday that truck drivers lined up on the highway leading to the English port of Dover are being tested for the virus, but that it may take some time for traffic to resume as normal after massive backup.

Calais is a major conduit for trade and travel between Britain and the continent, and France had argued that the blockade was necessary in order to work out safety measures to protect European citizens.

The French travel restrictions had angered and worried many in the UK because the nation relies heavily on its cross-Channel commercial links to the continent for food at this time of year, especially for fruit and fresh produce.

Gov. Noem calls pace of investigation in AG’s fatal crash ‘a disservice to victim’s family’

The governor isn’t happy that South Dakotans still don’t know if their attorney general will be charged criminally for killing a pedestrian while driving through Highmore more than 100 days ago.

Gov. Kristi Noem this week expressed her displeasure with the failure of the Hyde County State’s Attorney’s Office to determine whether South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg should be indicted after he struck and killed 55-year-old Joe Boever on the evening of Sept. 12.

“I share South Dakotans’ frustration about the amount of time that this has taken,” she said in a statement to the Argus Leader. “To have more than 100 days go by without resolution on this is a disservice to the victim’s family.”

Noem promised transparency into the incident, and she has held press conferences to update the public on the status of the investigation. But weeks have gone by since her secretary of Public Safety, Craig Price, turned his investigation and reports over to the group of state’s attorneys, who will decide whether charges should be filed.

Tony Mangan, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, confirmed Wednesday that his department finished its role in investigating the matter weeks ago.

The case is in the hands of assistant State’s Attorney Emily Sovell. She is being assisted by Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Crystal Johnson, Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo and Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore.

Sovell has not responded to multiple messages and emails left with her office since the investigation started. Johnson could not be reached on Wednesday, and Vargo and Moore did not respond to email messages from the Argus Leader.

Ravnsborg did not respond to a message left on his cell phone Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Johnson said the group of state’s attorneys was awaiting the return of a couple pieces of evidence from outside agencies. She said she hoped the matter could be decided before Christmas.

A typical fatal crash investigation takes about 30 days in South Dakota. And according to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, which oversaw the investigation into the fatal crash with the assistance of investigators from North Dakota and Wyoming, all materials relating to the investigation were handed over to the Hyde County State’s Attorney’s Office prior to Nov. 2.

Maggie Seidel, a senior advisor in Noem’s office, said the governor’s frustrations do not suggest whether she believes charges are merited or not, only that a determination should have been made by now.

Ravnsborg, 44, was traveling to his home in Pierre from Redfield when he struck Boever, who authorities say was walking in the westbound shoulder of Highway 14 just outside Highmore.

Ravnsborg pulled over and called 911, telling the dispatcher that he’d hit something in the middle of the road. Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek responded and took a report, suggesting he likely had hit a deer.

Volek loaned Ravnsborg a personal vehicle and had Ravnsborg’s badly damaged 2011 Ford Taurus towed to Pierre.

Ravnsborg says he was returning Volek’s vehicle the next morning when he and his chief of staff stopped at the accident scene. There, they discovered Boever’s body.

The South Dakota Highway Patrol’s accident report says Ravnsborg drifted onto the shoulder where his vehicle struck Boever and that he was distracted at the time of the crash. The report does not identify what the distraction was nor have authorities provided those details.

IMF Executive Board Concludes 2020 Article IV Consultation with Morocco

On December 18, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the Article IV consultation with Morocco.

The prompt response of the Moroccan authorities has helped contain the fallout from the pandemic. Nonetheless, economic activity has slowed sharply in the first half of 2020 on account of the combined effect of the health crisis and the drought (that affected agricultural production). The economic slowdown has caused an increase in the unemployment rate to 12.7 percent in the third quarter of the year (from 9.4 percent last year) and has driven inflation lower so far in 2020.

With greater public sector spending financed by the private and public voluntary contributions to the Covid-19 Fund, the deterioration of the fiscal position has been mainly driven by the fall in tax revenues. The current account deficit has increased in 2020 due to lower tourism receipts. Still, the resilience of remittances and lower imports have contained Morocco’s external financing needs, and international reserves remain comfortably above last year’ levels also thanks to the purchase of the IMF precautionary liquidity line in April and the greater recourse to external financing.

Banks have so far weathered the recession relatively well, and credit has continued to increase in 2020, reflecting both the strong response of the central bank, that has improved liquidity conditions and cut interest rates, and the government’s guaranteed credit schemes.

IMF staff expects GDP growth to fall to 7.2 percent in 2020 and rebound next year to 4.5 percent, as the effects of the drought and pandemic wane and monetary and fiscal policy remain accommodating. The recovery of tourism and export receipts is expected to lead to a gradual improvement of the current account deficit. This outlook remains subject to exceptional uncertainty, with much of the risks around the baseline depending on the evolution of the pandemic and progress on the vaccine front in both Morocco and its trading partners.

Executive Directors agreed with the thrust of the staff appraisal. Morocco has been hard hit by the global pandemic and suffered from a severe drought. They commended the authorities’ swift policy response that helped mitigate the social and economic impact of these shocks. Directors emphasized the exceptional uncertainty around the outlook and encouraged the authorities to continue supporting the economy until the recovery is well entrenched.

Directors agreed that fiscal policy has appropriately supported households and firms in the wake of the pandemic, aided by voluntary contributions to the COVID-19 Fund, and will need to continue sustaining the recovery in the short term. However, fiscal consolidation should resume as soon as the economy recovers from the pandemic. Directors encouraged the authorities to publish a medium-term fiscal framework that would show a credible commitment to put the public debt on a firmly downward trajectory, with further decisive reforms to improve tax policy and increase the efficiency of public spending.

Directors welcomed the exceptional measures adopted by Bank Al-Maghreb to smooth the impact of the pandemic on financial markets and the real economy. The monetary policy stance would need to remain accommodating. until inflationary pressures reemerge. Directors welcomed recent progress in increasing exchange rate flexibility and called for completing the transition to the planned inflation targeting framework to strengthen monetary policy transmission. While the banking sector system has so far weathered the crisis relatively well, Directors recommended continued close monitoring of the impact of the crisis on bank asset quality, including through regular stress testing. They also called for accelerating efforts to strengthen the AML/CFT framework and to finalize the bank resolution framework.

Directors supported the authorities’ plan to overhaul the large state-owned enterprises sector to improve its efficiency and governance, and support private sector development. Given the large volume of credit guarantees granted during the crisis and renewed efforts to boost public-private partnerships, Directors called for strengthening the management and reporting of associated fiscal risks. While recognizing past progress, they welcomed continuous efforts to improve governance and modernize public sector administration and fight corruption.

Directors welcomed the authorities’ commitment to extend the social protection system to expand its coverage, make access to benefits more equitable, and improve targeting and efficiency of spending. Given the limited fiscal space, they underlined the need to ensure adequate long-term financing for such reforms. Directors also underscored the critical role of education reforms to build human capital and improve long-term productivity.

Directors noted that the decision to draw on the Precautionary and Liquidity Line (PLL) arrangement in April 2020 has helped ease external financing pressures and to maintain official reserves at an adequate level. They welcomed today’s announcement that the authorities intend to repurchase some part of the amount purchased under the PLL arrangement. This may make post-program monitoring no longer necessary. Directors looked forward to continued close Fund engagement with the authorities.

President Trump Vetoes National Defense Authorization Act

President Trump vetoed the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Wednesday, following through on earlier threats. The president has several issues with the $740.5 billion spending bill, which he outlined in a statement released on the veto.

The NDAA includes amendments to block planned troop draw-downs in Afghanistan and Germany by requiring reports to Congress before funds could be used to bring troops home. A similar amendment is included for troops in South Korea.

“Numerous provisions of the Act directly contradict my Administration’s foreign policy, particularly my efforts to bring our troops home,” President Trump said in the statement. “I oppose endless wars, as does the American public. Over bipartisan objections, however, this Act purports to restrict the President’s ability to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Germany, and South Korea.”

Both chambers of Congress passed the NDAA with well over the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto. Since President Trump has been threatening to veto the bill, Congress has planned a rare session in between Christmas and New Years to override the veto.

According to The Hill, the House is expected to hold a veto override vote on Monday. If the House overrides Trump, the Senate is expected to vote the following day, although some Republican senators could delay the vote. If the vote is delayed past January 3rd, Congress will have to restart the NDAA from scratch.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) signaled his willingness to delay the vote over his opposition to the Afghanistan amendment. “I very much am opposed to the Afghan war, and I’ve told them I’ll come back to try to prevent them from easily overriding the president’s veto,” he said.

Earlier this month, Senator Paul attempted to block the Senate’s initial vote on the NDAA over the amendments that seek to block troop withdrawals. Paul said the bill would set “a very dangerous precedent for limiting a President’s power to end war.”

One of President Trump’s main gripes with the bill was that it does not include a provision to repeal Section 230, a law that gives tech platforms immunity from liability over posts by third parties. Trump said in his statement: “Section 230 facilitates the spread of foreign disinformation online, which is a serious threat to our national security and election integrity. It must be repealed.”

Other issues the president raised was over provisions to rename military bases and slow down 5G roll-outs. Trump called the NDAA a “gift” to Russia and China.

Singapore reports 1st case of Covid-19 strain from UK

Singapore yesterday reported one confirmed case with UK B117 virus strain involving a 17-year-old female Singaporean who was studying in the United Kingdom from August 2020, according to the republic’s Ministry of Health (MOH).

MOH said in light of recent reports that the B117 strain, a potentially more contagious variant of the Covid-19 virus, is circulating in the UK, the National Public Health Laboratory is performing viral genomic sequencing for confirmed Covid-19 cases who had arrived from Europe recently.

A total of 31 imported cases from Europe, who arrived in Singapore between Nov 17 and Dec 17, 2020, were confirmed to have Covid-19 infection in December 2020, it said in a statement issued here.

Among them, MOH said, 12 were not infected with the B117 strain, and one has been found to carry the B117 strain.

“Five samples cannot be sequenced due to their low viral load, and we are pending results for another 11 cases who are preliminary positive for the B117 strain. Two cases have not been tested so far,” it said.

The ministry noted that there was currently no evidence that the B117 strain is circulating in the community.

All the cases had been placed on 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN) at dedicated facilities or isolated upon arrival in Singapore, and their close contacts had been quarantined earlier, it said.

As a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of spread, Singapore announced yesterday that from Dec 23, 23:59 hours, all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors with recent travel history to the UK within the last 14 days will not be allowed entry into Singapore, or transit through Singapore.

Turkish court convicts former editor on terror charges

A Turkish court on Wednesday convicted the former editor-in-chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet on espionage and terror-related charges over a 2015 news story, a verdict the exiled journalist said exemplified the pressures on Turkish media.

The court in Istanbul found Can Dundar guilty of “obtaining secret documents for espionage” and “knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organization without being a member.” It sentenced him to 27 1/2 years in prison.

Dundar fled to Germany in 2016, and he was tried in abstention. His lawyers said the proceedings did not adhere to the standards for a fair trial and judicial impartiality, and they did not attend Wednesday’s court hearing in protest.

In an interview with The Associated Press at his Berlin office, Dundar called the verdict “a personal decision by the president of Turkey to deter the journalists writing against him.”

Dundar was first charged in 2015 and tried and convicted in 2016 for a Cumhuriyet article that accused Turkey’s intelligence service of illegally sending weapons to Syria. Wednesday’s verdict came in his retrial.

The story featured a 2014 video that showed men in police uniforms and civilian clothing unscrewing bolts to open trucks and unpacking boxes. Later images showed trucks full of mortar rounds. The AP cannot confirm the authenticity of the video.

The news report claimed that Turkish intelligence service and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not allow a prosecutor to pursue an investigation into arms smuggling.

The story infuriated Erdogan, who said the trucks carried aid to Turkestan groups in Syria and that Dundar would “pay a high price.” Cumhuriyet’s Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gul also faced criminal charges in the first trial.

Turkey later intervened directly in the Syrian civil war, launching four cross-border operations.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 154th out of 180 countries in its 2020 Press Freedom Index. Dundar said the trial verdict could have a further chilling effect.

“The problem is there is a cloud of fear over the country, so those decisions may deter some journalists in Turkey to write against the government, to write about the truth,” he said.

“There are still brave journalists defending the truth in Turkey, but I hope the world will see much better now what kind of government we are struggling against,” he added.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted: “The decision against Can Dundar is a heavy blow against independent journalistic work in Turkey.”

“Journalism is an indispensable service to society, including and especially when it takes a critical view of what those in government are doing,” he said.

Dundar was accused of aiding the network of US-based Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government accuses of masterminding a failed 2016 coup. Gulen denies the allegations and remains in Pennsylvania.

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported that in reaching its verdict, the Istanbul court said that the 2015 news report aimed to present Turkey as a “country that supports terror” domestically and internationally. The court said that perception helped Gulen’s network, which also used the story in its own publications.

Dundar and Gul were arrested in 2015 and spent three months in pre-trial detention. In 2016, a court sentenced them to five to six years in prison for “obtaining and revealing secret documents to be used for espionage.” Dundar was attacked outside the courthouse the day the verdict was issued.

After Dundar appealed the conviction, the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the sentence in 2018 and ordered a retrial with harsher sentences. The retrial began in 2019.

Dundar’s property in Turkey is in the process of being seized. He remains defiant.

“I am here, working as a journalist, and I don’t have any fear anymore,” he told the AP. “Because I was attacked by gunmen in Turkey, just because of these news (reports), now I am in exile, all our assets are confiscated. What else can they do?”

VA workers: Short-staffing and PPE shortages impacting vets’ care

Short-staffing. Temp nurses hired off the street who are more interested in paychecks than patients. No N95 masks for months. Arbitrary management decisions with workers and their union cut out of the loop. No input on how to improve the medical care for the nation’s veterans.

Welcome to the latest description, courtesy of its Government Employees local union leaders, of the sad state of affairs in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospital system, the largest such chain in the U.S. Other problems join those listed above. And all of this hurts veterans’ care, those local leaders told a Dec. 16 press conference.

Outgoing Republican Oval Office occupant Donald Trump has only worsened things with his anti-worker dictates, designed to destroy both the two million federal workers who toil for his government and their unions, said one local leader in describing efforts to fight back against the ills.

“It’s like going against the entire U.S. Army with only a handgun,” Marcellus Shields of the union local at VA’s Wilmington, N.C., hospital, explained.

The mess at the VA “is not just about our numbers. This is about the veterans,” Shields added, pleading with reporters to tell the real story at the VA because the agency brass isn’t. “Everyone here is tired of beating our head against the wall.”

VA, second only to the Pentagon in numbers of federal workers, serves nine million veterans. It boasts of the quality of its care and veterans groups generally laud it, too.

Veterans and their groups also overwhelmingly don’t want it privatized or be forced to visit private clinics and thus be deprived of the expertise of VA physicians and nurses who have learned how to treat the whole veteran and all his or her ills, not just one disorder each.

Those injured vets range from soldiers left limbless due to improvised explosive devices—bombs—from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) sufferers from their service ranging back to the Indochina and Korean Wars.

The VA itself has been under stress, following a scandal, reported first by AFGE whistleblowers, showing bosses falsified records to hide lack of care or slow care at many of its hospitals. The bosses both covered up and retaliated against the whistleblowers.

Congress, under the guise of “reform,” responded by making it easier to fire workers and bosses, in two laws enacted since that scandal. The laws also let VA pay private doctors who treated vets who were not close to VA hospitals or clinics.

That subsidy to non-VA docs was a Trump regime step towards privatizing the VA, the Government Employees said then. So did vets groups. Congress’s ruling Republicans brushed them off, as Trump installed pro-privatization ideologues in top VA management posts in D.C.

Trump also took away ways to fight back. His executive orders stripped federal workers in general of due process rights against arbitrary discipline. And stripped unions of ways to communicate with members and have dialogue with bosses, workers said. Though they didn’t say so, one Trump executive order also bans rank-and-file workers from contacting Congress.

And then the coronavirus lowered the boom. VA facilities then had 50,000 worker vacancies nationwide. “We had a skeleton crew already, and then the pandemic hit,” said Regina Smith of Local 424 at the Baltimore VA Hospital.

“A lot of nurses are fatigued and strained and stressed due to all the overtime” bosses demand, as a result, said Scott Geddes, President of Local 1891, who represents workers at VA’s Community Living Centers in Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx.

Overtime estimates ranged from 12 hours daily seven days a week in the Bronx to “17-18 hours a day,” including regular non-overtime shifts, at VA’s Milwaukee hospital, said Gayle Griffin, president of Local 3 there. Geddes said workers “were never made whole” for the extra hours. Griffin noted “people were disciplined if they didn’t work” such long hours.

To ease the short-staffing and “keep our patients safe, we suggested managers and assistant managers take part in patient care,” added Barbara Calle, a 30-year veteran nurse at the Minneapolis VA Hospital. “We were told ‘We don’t.’”

Contracting-out is rampant and rising. “Contract nurses make three times what we make and care only for the money. They’re not there every day, and” unlike the VA’s own nurses, “are not vested in the vets,” said Scott. Added Griffin: “Now, they’ll be contracting out not just nurses but Certified Nursing Assistants” according to a fellow local officer who called her.

Favoritism, racial and otherwise, comes into play when bosses distribute bonuses, several workers said. “They give performance awards of $3,000 or so to people who aren’t even treating patients, while the nurses get $250,” Scott said of area bosses. Baltimore’s Smith, who is Black, reported “people at the lower end of the pay scale,” like food service workers, aren’t getting bonuses. They’re typically workers of color.

“There’s a real disparity. I first asked about it on June 12, and I haven’t gotten an answer. I’ll give them two more months and then file a ULP [unfair labor practices] charge if they don’t.”

Meanwhile, VA hired 10,000 people systemwide, reported Calle. They’re all supervisors. The agency has given no racial breakdown of the new hires.

Staff shortages are not new, but now they’re really bad, adds Baltimore’s Smith. “In 1993, when I was hired, we had adequate staff.” There have been shortages before “but this is the worst and highest evil since I’ve been here. As a result, people have died.”

There’s also little protection for workers against the coronavirus’s ravages. One worker described being told to wear bandannas due to a lack of N95 masks. Others fear that lack of protective gear and social distancing means they could catch the virus and infect their families.

Jim Rihel of Local 940, which represents workers at the VA Benefits Center in Philadelphia, the agency’s largest, says it’s “three or four stories” high with “300 to 400 people per floor where we can’t socially distance” for protection against the coronavirus’s spread.

“Since March, there have been four” positive cases “in a closed building and they’ve deep-cleaned it only once,” he notes.

“Our people are getting hand wipes for 12- to 14-hour shifts. And they’re being required to wear one surgical mask, not an N95 mask,” for that entire time, added Minneapolis’s Calle.

AFGE isn’t the only union upset by VA’s mismanagement during the Trump regime’s reign. National Nurses United, whose members include RNs at VA hospitals around the U.S., have been raising a ruckus about short-staffing literally for years, even before the scandals.

The pandemic only worsened things, forcing the RNs to hit the streets in public protests. The latest was at the Rocky Mountain VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., on Nov. 19.

There, VA bosses have done nothing about chronic short-staffing, instituted widespread shift changes the day before, and wrote up a nurse who hung flyers about what was going in on employee-only areas of the hospital. The union contract allows such flyers.

“We are alarmed to see the flagrant disrespect, intimidation, and disregard for our union rights,” said Sharda Fornnarino, RN, in a statement before the Colorado protest. “No nurse should be pulled away from their patients, detained, and cited for exercising their rights.”

“Furthermore, we understand there are times when changes must be made in the hospital. We do not have an issue with change, but we have an issue with being excluded in the discussions and decision-making about our working conditions, a bargained right, which is guaranteed by our contract.”

In his last statement on both VA staffing and anti-virus supplies, in May, Trump VA Secretary Robert Wilkie claimed there were no problems. But he has another problem himself.

VA’s Inspector General reported Wilkie intentionally disparaged a female congressional aide after she reported a sexual assault at the VA hospital in D.C. The six biggest vets groups and the House’s top two Democrats now demand Trump fire Wilkie, who denies the charge.

In May, Wilkie said VA had enough beds for veterans and enough staff to handle coronavirus-hit vets, too. One way it freed up room, he said, was to defer elective surgeries in favor of coronavirus care. He didn’t define “elective,” but said that freed up some 4,000 beds.

He also said that as of April 28, VA had hired “9,338 medical staff” but only 2,147 were full-time nurses. He didn’t give a breakdown of other hires. He said VA bought 4.5 million N95 masks from New Hampshire then and has “millions on hand.” Wilkie didn’t give a number.

Published by jim

Curator of things...

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