This Week in People’s History, Dec 26-Jan 1
Portside Date:
Author: Portside
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Ebola-related Personal Protective Equipment training session for healthcare workers

Ebola Alarm Ignored 

10 YEARS AGO, on December 26, 2013, Ebola broke out in rural Guinea on the west coast of Africa. The highly contagious and deadly disease soon spread to Guinea's densely populated capital Conakry. From Conakry it spread to large cities in nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone. Unlike all previous Ebola outbreaks, this one took root in several large, densely populated cities where its spread could not be contained. The epidemic quickly became the worst Ebola outbreak ever by far, killing at least 2600 people in Guinea, 4800 in Liberia, and 4000 in Sierra Leone. It also caused a small number of fatalities in Nigeria, Mali and the U.S.

Early in the outbreak it was apparent that the local medical infrastructure was utterly lacking in the resources needed to bring it under control. There was not a single isolation ward in any of the area's hospitals. In April 2014, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which was deeply involved in the fight to stop the epidemic, asked the World Health Organization to declare an international medical emergency, an action that would  alert governments and medical institutions of the urgent need for action. But for five  months the World Health Organization refused, until finally doing so in early August, by which time thousands were dead (10 percent of them healthcare workers) and the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were in shambles.               

Ma Rainey's Swan Song

95 YEARS AGO, on December 27, 1928, Gertrude Pridgett Rainey, whose stage name was Ma Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues," made her last recording. Rainey had been a successful touring musician for more than two decades before she made her first recording in 1923. Over the next five years, while she continued to tour, she recorded more than 100 songs, many of which she wrote. A number of Rainey's numbers are now standards, including See See Rider, which she recorded in 1924 and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which she wrote and recorded in 1927.

Right-Wing Puts Bull's Eye on the Endangered Species Act

50 YEARS AGO, on December 28, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the most important U.S. law intended to identify and protect species that are at risk of extinction. 

The year 1973 was a good one from the point of view of endangered species, for not only did both houses of Congress vote overwhelmingly (92-0 in the Senate and 390-12 in the House) in favor of the ESA, but the Congressional votes came quick on the heels of an international treaty on the same subject, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which was signed in Geneva in March 1973.

By any reasonable measure, both ESA and the endangered species treaty have both been tremendous successes. Both the law and the treaty only protect the most seriously threatened species, and the number of the protected species that have actually gone extinct is minuscule. 

Sadly, the ESA has acquired many Congressional enemies in the last six years. During the Trump administration, 52 bills were introduced to weaken the law. More recently, in 2022 and 2023, 28 anti-ESA bills went into the Congressional hopper. To date, no bill to weaken ESA has passed and such proposals have little prospect today of ever becoming law, but a second Trump presidency would almost certainly change their outlook.…   

A Sinking Ship Is No Place for Rats

65 YEARS AGO, on December 29, 1958, two days before the corrupt, brutal, Cuban president Fulgencio Batista was forced to flee the country (taking with him at least $300 million in loot), Batista revealed his increasing military desperation by announcing the forced retirement of two army generals and the commander of the Cuban Navy Air Force. The Cuban revolutionaries of the 26th of July Movement, led by Fidel Castro, were two days away from their final victory.

Is THIS How to Respond to an Emergency? 

10 YEARS AGO, on December 30 (in 2013), the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health published a 40-page report titled "Protecting Worker and Community Health: Are We Prepared for the Next 9/11?" As the report made clear, the answer to the question was "No, but we are trying to fix that."

Today, 10 years after the NYCOSH report and more than 22 years after the event that released tons of toxic dust that  caused many thousands of cases of preventable disease, including numerous fatalities, among workers and area residents, the government is still working on it.

"It" is a regulation, called the Emergency Response Standard (ERS),  that would mandate protection of rescue and clean-up workers in the event of a significant unplanned release of toxic material. OSHA had been working on the ERS since 2007.  OSHA now says the draft ERS will be made public in January 2024. But when, if ever, it will it become a final, enforceable regulation is anyone's guess.…  

Think Before You Drive

85 YEARS AGO, on December 31, 1938 (New Year's Eve), police in Indianapolis, Indiana, became the first U.S. law-enforcement agency to use a machine to identify drunk drivers. The machine was called the Drunkometer by its inventor, a biochemistry professor at the University of Indiana.  The Drunkometer, which was eventually replaced by the Breathalyzer, gave the police a numerical measure of a driver's level of inebriation.  Previously, police could only estimate a driver's lack of sobriety with tests like the requirement to walk in a straight line. In the U.S. today, 37 people die every day as a result of drunk driving, one every 39 minutes.

20 Percent Approval Rating: Not a Good Sign

60 YEARS AGO, on January 1, 1963, former president Dwight Eisenhower's memoir, Mandate for Change, was published, including this eye-opening passage: "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting [in 1954], possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than [South Vietnamese] Chief of State Bao Dai." Was the U.S. government listening? Did it care? At the time Eisenhower wrote, the U.S. had about 14 thousand military personnel in Vietnam. Casualties among them had been almost nil. Less than three years later, the U.S. forces in Vietnam had increased to more than 125,000. It did not end well.

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