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Build Back Better: Friendly fire aimed at Joe Biden | USA

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In early October, a group of activists kayaked to the houseboat belonging to US Senator Joe Manchin in Washington to protest his opposition to the Democratic Party’s €3.5-trillion Reconciliation bill, which is a star policy of the Joe Biden administration. This came just days after Senator Kyrsten Sinema was ambushed by protesters during her trip back to Washington.

But neither Manchin nor Sinema are part of the Republican Party’s offense against the bill: they are two moderates in the Democratic Party who are forcing the president to reconsider the reforms. In the meantime, Biden is facing both pressure and disillusionment as his popularity in the polls plummets.

The Democratic Party’s ambitious spending plan, called Build Back Better, involves the largest extension of social-welfare coverage in the United States since the 1970s when Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson was in power. The bill includes a tax credit for children and other dependent family members, extends aid to the elderly and disadvantaged people, and in its current form, funds a raft of sweeping measures aimed at fighting climate change and promoting renewable energy. But it is the environmental side of the plan that Biden is now considering changing due to the complete opposition from Senator Manchin, whose state – the conservative West Virginia – relies heavily on coal mining for employment. The plan is estimated to cost $3.5 trillion (around €3 trillion), but it is likely that it will be cut back to less than $2.5 million.

This is because, unlike former president Lyndon B. Johnson, Biden only has a narrow majority in Congress. In 1965, when Johnson signed the Medicare bill – which established a health-insurance program for the elderly – the Democratic Party had an overwhelming majority in Congress and held control of two-thirds of the Senate. But even then it was difficult to convince the moderate sector to approve the bill. Fifty years later, in 2011, when former president Barack Obama put forward his healthcare reforms, he also had a stronger position than Biden in both legislative chambers: 57 democrats and two independents in the Senate.

Senator Manchin’s opposition to the social-welfare plan is based on fears over rising inflation in the US, an increase of public debt and – something more abstract – concern that it will turn the country “into an entitlement society,” as he stated at the beginning of October. The statement came after he published an opinion poll in The Wall Street Journal called “Why I Won’t Support Spending Another $3.5 Trillion.” In the article, he argues: “Establishing an artificial $3.5 trillion spending number and then reverse-engineering the partisan social priorities that should be funded isn’t how you make good policy.”

Since becoming a senator after the 2020 election, Kyrsten Sinema has defended a bipartisan approach to legislating – a position she has also taken with the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, which is still awaiting ratification. “The American people are asking for us to take action. What they don’t want to see is us sit on our hands, waiting until we get every single thing that we want,” she said in a radio interview with NPR in August. “That all-or-nothing approach usually leaves you with nothing,” added Sinema, who is the first Democratic senator in the state of Arizona in 30 years.

Both senators raised record sums of money in the third quarter of the year, thanks to large contributions from the oil and gas, pharmaceutical and financial services sectors, according to filings recorded and published by the Financial Times. Manchin raised $1.6 million (€1.38 million), up from $1.5 million ( €1.29 million) in the second quarter and just $175,000 (€150,000) in the first. Meanwhile, Sinema received €1.1 million (€950,000) in donations in the third quarter, a figure narrowly outstripping the second and far from the $375,000 (€322,000) in the first. This is despite the fact that neither of the politicians face reelection until 2024.

Two Senators cannot be allowed to defeat what 48 senators and 210 House members want

Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders

In the meantime, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is starting to lose patience and is also pressuring the White House. “Two senators cannot be allowed to defeat what 48 senators and 210 House members want,” Bernie Sanders, senator for Vermont, wrote in a message on Twitter. “Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better legislation,” he added in a separate tweet. In a similar vein, Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said: “Four percent of Democrats are opposing passing the president’s agenda.”

Democrat veteran Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, has begun to try to solve the conflict and is preparing lawmakers to accept cuts to the reconciliation bill. “I’m very disappointed that we’re not going with the original $3.5 trillion,” she admitted on October 12. “But whatever we do, we will make decisions that will continue to be transformative.”

The greater debate with respect to the spending plan is over the size of public spending and to what extent the state should intervene in the economy. Biden came to the White House with the message that a monumental crisis required a strong and broad government. The Biden administration has been able to pass new legislation on voting rights at a time when Republican-led states are pushing for restrictions, which in practice, hinder access to minority groups and the disadvantaged. But there are more projects in limbo. The reason is that it is not enough to have a simple majority in the Senate; the Democratic Party needs 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber, but only has 50, plus the casting vote of Deputy President Kamala Harris.

Meanwhile, Biden’s popularity has taken a nosedive. He entered the White House on January 20 with a 57% approval rating, according to respected pollster Gallup. But in August, after six months in power, the figure had fallen below 50%, and in September, the last month for which there is available data, it was down to 43%. This is higher than the approval rating of former US president Donald Trump, which came in at 37% after the same period of time, but is nine points lower than the same figure for Obama. The fall is largely due to the drop in support among independent voters: before the election, 61% of them approved of Biden, compared to 37% now.

Economic uncertainty, an uptick of the coronavirus pandemic over summer and stalled reforms are among the reasons Biden’s popularity is waning. Other factors include the administration’s migration policy, which has maintained some of the most restrictive elements of the Trump era, and the upheaval following the US army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. With the anniversary of the November 2020 election fast approaching, Biden is hoping that he will be able to pass his star legislation, despite the internal opposition.



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Lives lost at Europe’s borders and Afghan MPs in exile: human rights this fortnight – in pictures

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A roundup of the struggle for human rights and freedoms, from Mexico to Manila

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Belgium tightens Covid rules as health system ‘is cracking’

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Belgium has introduced new measures to curb the surge of Covid-19 infections in the country, following the third emergency meeting of federal and regional governments in three weeks.

“The autumn wave is much heavier than was estimated,” Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said on Friday (3 December).

“The infection rates are among the highest in Europe and the pressure in healthcare has become unsustainable,” he also said, arguing that new measures are necessary because “the system is cracking”.

One item on the agenda that proved to be divisive was the closure of schools – a move supported by experts and the federal government but opposed by regional governments.

Belgium’s so-called concertation committee of federal and regional governments finally decided to keep schools open, but it impose a longer, three-week, Christmas holiday for primary and pre-primary education. The holiday will now run from 20 December to 10 January.

According to Flemish prime minister Jan Jambon, this extra week will be used to administer the booster shot to the teachers.

And until the school holiday, a class will go until quarantine after two cases of Covid-19 are detected (previously three cases). Additionally, all extracurricular activities will be barred.

Children from the age of six upwards will also have to wear a face mask at school and all other places where its use is compulsory. And parents have been advised to test their children regularly.

For this coming weekend, indoor events with more than 4,000 attendees will be cancelled. From Monday, this will apply to all with more than 200 attendees.

Events with fewer than 200 people inside will still be allowed under the current criteria – that everyone needs to have a corona pass, be seated and wear a face mask.

Museums and cinemas would remain open, but with a capacity limit of 200 people per room.

The committee also decided that restaurants and bars can continue to remain open until 11PM, as it is currently the case – although experts had asked to close them at 8PM.

This new package of measures has already been criticised by representatives of the cultural sector, who argued that the restrictions do not target the source of the problem.

“Instead of fighting the virus, we are fighting culture. Bars open, but culture [events] only 200 people. Who are we fooling?,” said Michael De Cock, director of the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg [Royal Flemish Theatre].

There is also no restrictions for private social life in the so-called “contact bubbles” – despite this also being recommended it by experts. Nevertheless, there is a recommendation to limit contacts as much as possible.

At work, there are no new measures, as the committee previously announced that teleworking is mandatory at least four days a week.

Intensive-care cases expected to peak next week

An average of 318 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised each day in Belgium this week – which represents an increase of four percent compared with the previous week.

There are currently 3,707 people hospitalised in the country, of which 821 are in intensive care.

“Although the number of infections is very high, the number of deaths in our country is lower than in comparable countries, and that is due to the high vaccination coverage,” said de Croo.

“Getting vaccinated is an act of solidarity,” he added.

More than 75 percent of the Belgian population is fully-vaccinated, and over a million people have received a booster shot.

For his part, Belgian virologist Steven Van Gucht said on Friday that the number of Covid-19 patients on the intensive care units of the country’s hospitals are expected to peak next week.

“It is unclear whether we can then expect a rapid fall or whether the figures will remain at that high level,” he also said, according to VRT news.

The highest number of new Covid-19 infections (25,574) during this fourth wave was recorded on Monday 22 November.

But new measures will make coronavirus figures fall more quickly, relieving the pressure on the health care sector, Van Gucht said.

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India’s ‘pencil village’ counts the cost of Covid school closures | Global development

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School closures in India during the pandemic have left their mark on more than the children who have seen delays to their learning. In one Kashmiri village the impact has been catastrophic on employment.

Pick up a pencil anywhere across India and it is likely to come from the poplar trees of Ukhoo.

This village, with an abundance of trees, about 10 miles south of Srinagar city in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, supplies more than 90% of the wood used by India’s pencil manufacturers, which export to more than 150 countries.

Before Covid, more than 2,500 people worked in the village’s 17 pencil factories and the industry supported about 250 families.

But, after nearly two years of school closures and a dramatic drop in demand for the village’s products, factory owners reduced their workforce by more than half.

Workers were dismissed without pay, while many of those who kept their jobs had migrated from other parts of India, and were cheaper to employ. Now the village and its workforce are waiting eagerly for the market to revive.

Rajesh Kumar, 26, from Bihar, has worked in Ukhoo for seven years. Like other migrant workers, he lives in a room on the factory premises and works 10- to 12-hour shifts. During lockdown last year, the factory owner provided food and accommodation when production shutdown for about three months. He is one of the luckier ones to be back working now.

“I hope the pencil demand increases and these factories are full of workers again, as many of our friends and people from our villages find work [here] and are able to make a living,” says Kumar.

Poplar logs outside a pencil slate factory, Ukhoo
Factory owners have had to lay off half of their workers during the pandemic. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Farooq Ahmed Wani, 27, from the city of Jammu, has worked as a machine operator in Ukhoo for the past five years.

“We are hoping that schools reopen throughout the country so that there is more demand for pencils in the market,” he says in an optimistic tone. “Then these factories can employ more young people and more migrants can also get some work here.”

Pencil wala Gaon, or “pencil village”, attracted the attention of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. In his monthly radio programme, Mann Ki Baat, last year he said the district was an example of how to reduce the country’s dependency on imports. “Once upon a time we used to import wood for pencils from abroad but now our Pulwama is making the country self-sufficient in the field of pencil making,” Modi said.

90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India comes from Ukhoo.
Ukhoo supplies 90% of the wood used in pencils manufactured in India. Photograph: Vincent Lecomte/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

A recent ministry of home affairs report said that the village would be developed as a “special zone” for manufacturing. “Now the whole country would be supplied finished pencils, manufactured completely in Pulwama,” the report noted. But the pandemic has shown how overreliance on one product in a region brings its own problems.

A migrant worker trims a plank of poplar wood at a pencil slate factory
A migrant worker trims timber at a pencil factory. The factories attract workers from several states. Photograph: Adil Abbas

Abrar Ahmed, a unit supervisor at one of Ukhoo’s factories, says everyone has suffered. “Even the sawdust from woodcutting machines is usually taken by the local villagers who then sell it to poultry farms and for other purposes in the village.”

Manzoor Ahmad Allaie owns one of the biggest factories in Ukhoo.

“We are only doing about 30% to 40% [of normal levels of] business now because of the Covid lockdown impact from last year, which means we produce about only 80 bags of pencil slats a day,” says Allaie. “Earlier we could produce about 300 pencil slat bags [a day] in the factory, which were transported out of Kashmir.”

He is eagerly looking forward to India’s schools fully reopening. It has been a hard two years for the pencil villagers, he says.

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