covid-19 and other natural disasters, actual & waiting to happen

Growing wave of protests across Pindostan against school openings
Evan Blake, WSWS, Aug 13 2020

(Photo: Fayetteville Education Association)

Across Pindostan, thousands of teachers, education workers, parents and students are mobilizing to oppose the unsafe reopening of schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Car caravans, demonstrations and other forms of protest are building wherever schools are slated to resume in-person instruction. The reopening of schools is taking place in an unplanned, haphazard manner, in which each of the country’s nearly 14k local school districts are being left to their own devices. Cash strapped schools are quickly improvising as students return, including in Oklahoma, where teachers this week were given two rolls of paper towels, three boxes of tissues, one 24-oz bottle of spray disinfectant, and a mask and gloves to carry out daily cleaning over nine weeks.

Predictably there have already been outbreaks at schools in Georgia, Oklahoma, Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Hawaii. The scientific case against the reckless reopening of schools has been bolstered by a new study from the University of Florida based on capturing and analyzing air samples containing the live virus from hospital rooms. The study confirms that tiny droplets, known as aerosols, produced simply through speaking, can travel 16 feet or more, well beyond the recommended six feet for social distancing. The aerosols can also remain airborne for hours. A classroom simulation shows that the spread of the virus can be significantly reduced by placing ventilation near a teacher. However, the Government Accountability Office recently found that 41% of school districts need to update or replace the ventilation systems in at least half of their schools, and a 2016 report by the Center for Green Schools found that 15k schools have indoor air quality deemed unfit for students and staff to breathe.

From Pindostan to Brazil, South Africa, Britain, France, Australia, Germany and other countries, capitalist politicians are demanding that schools reopen in order to force parents back into unsafe workplaces to resume the flow of corporate profit. In Pindostan, the epicenter of the global pandemic with over 5.3m cases and nearly 170k deaths, the drive to reopen schools finds its most homicidal expression. On Wednesday, the White House issued a press release that stated in part:

The education of children is more than an essential business. It’s a top national priority to ensure Pindostan can continue to aggressively compete with the rest of the world.

Shortly after the press release, a forum with a panel of teachers & academics was held with Trump, Pence, DeVos and Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, who is pushing the resumption of full in-person instruction in one of the nation’s epicenters. The aim of the event, titled, “Kids First: Getting Pindostan’s Children Safely Back to School,” was to promote pseudoscience and downplay the risks of reopening schools. While cynically feigning concern for students, Trump threatened to utilize the pandemic to defund public educationin favour of parochial and other private schools, saying:

I’d like to see the money follow the student. If a school is closed, why are we paying the school?

Trump and his Thug allies on the state level express most nakedly the demands of the ruling class, but the return to in-person schooling is a bipartisan policy. Last week New York’s Demagog Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that “all schools can reopen” across the state, including in New York City, the largest district in the country with 1.1m students and 135k teachers and support staff. In other Demagog-controlled districts like Chicago, LA and Philadelphia, schools are opening online initially or rotating online and in-person learning, but this is largely aimed at dissipating opposition and biding time to reopen fully. Opposition to the reckless reopening of schools is mounting in the working class, whose interests are dictated by science and public health, not the rise of the stock market.

Facing a concerted, bipartisan campaign to vilify educators, create divisions with parents, and use students as pawns in the return-to-work campaign, educators, parents, and students have courageously organized dozens of protests to voice their opposition. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, a groundswell of resistance forced local officials to reverse their plans to provide in-person instruction, as demanded by Demagog Governor Phil Murphy. Over 400 teachers opted out of in-person instruction, prompting the school board to change to entirely online instruction at the start of the year. This decision prompted Governor Murphy to announce that he will reverse a previous policy and develop plans for remote learning in the state. There are growing protests across Nebraska, where Thug Governor Pete Ricketts has promoted the resumption of in-person instruction. On Monday, over 200 educators rallied at Memorial Park in Omaha, and another 100 protested in Lincoln. One teacher dressed as the Grim Reaper held a sign saying:

I can’t wait to meet my kids!

Roughly 60 educators held a silent protest outside the Papillion La-Vista school board meeting in Papillion, Nebraska on Monday, demanding a halt to the resumption of fully in-person instruction. At the board meeting, parents and educators spoke out in favor of online learning, with Dr James Wilson, a biology professor, stating:

I have a four-year-old little girl and a 78-year-old pair of parents that I cannot go see starting tomorrow because I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Despite the outpouring of opposition, the board voted unanimously to resume in-person instruction, which began Tuesday and Wednesday. In Arkansas, teachers protested against Thug Governor Asa Hutchinson’s plans to fully reopen even as the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths have risen statewide over the past month. Dozens of protesters participated, holding signs that read, among other slogans:

The blood will be on Asa’s hands.
Whose child has to die?
I can teach from home. I can’t teach from a ventilator.
School = super spreader event.

The Fayetteville Education Association, a local affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), was compelled to organize the protest due to the immense opposition developing among educators in the state. In less than six weeks, the Facebook group Arkansans For Safe Public Schools has rapidly gained nearly 14k members. In Utah, dozens of teachers protested the resumption of in-person learning in Alpine School District, the largest district, which has roughly 80k students. The district is located in Utah County, which currently has the highest rate of infections in the state. The guidelines adopted only mandate that a school closes when 15 or more positive cases are found. With schools slated to resume in-person learning in Washoe County School District, in Nevada, over 100 educators, parents and students protested outside the district’s school board meeting Tuesday. High school teacher Debra Harris told the Reno Gazette Journal:

This is insane. This cannot be a safe condition during COVID. Professional development, which is usually focused on lesson planning, is now entirely about hygiene. Nothing has been about education because that’s not what’s going to happen this year on campus.

Facing immense pressure from educators, parents and students, Jefferson Parish Schools, the largest school district in Louisiana with some 50,000 students, was forced to delay the start of the school year by two weeks to August 26. Last week, hundreds protested at a school board meeting. With COVID-19 spreading rapidly throughout the state, nearly half of all students in the districts chose distance learning over in-person instruction. Brian Williams J D, a Jefferson Parish schoolteacher, spoke to the WSWS about the opposition to reopening. Describing the school board meeting, he said:

They are clueless about actual conditions on the ground. If they think school is safe, then they should put their jobs on the line, the way our lives are on the line. Promise us it’s safe by offering to resign if you’re wrong.

Highlighting the connection between the back-to-school campaign and the back-to-work campaign, Williams said:

These are low-income, minority communities, essential workers. Jefferson Parish is the hottest spot for COVID-19 in all of Louisiana. Talking about reopening, the only thing you can figure is, they’re so desperate for the children’s parents’ labor that they’re willing to risk our lives.

While last week’s protest was partially organized by the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, the local teacher union, Williams expressed disappointment with their actions. He said they were “unmotivated, moving very slowly, very hesitantly” and not calling for a strike. The above protests are a small fraction of the dozens and possibly hundreds that have taken place across the country in recent weeks, in nearly every state. The central task facing educators is to develop fighting organizations to connect their disparate struggles and prepare for a nationwide general strike to halt the drive to reopen schools. This can only be done independently of the procorporate Pindo Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, which have rejected the widely supported call for a nationwide strike. The initiative and active struggle of educators, parents and students must be expanded and deepened as widely as possible.

To organize and coordinate these struggles, the Socialist Equality Party calls upon all those opposed to the deadly reopening of schools to form a network of interconnected rank-and-file safety committees in every school and neighborhood. These committees must establish connections with the broadest sections of the working class, manufacturing, logistics, health-care, transit and other workers, to prepare a common fight against both corporate-controlled parties, which intend to use all forms of intimidation and state repression to force teachers back into the classrooms, regardless of the human toll. The fight to stop the reopening of the schools will require the political mobilization of the entire working class against both corporate-controlled parties and the capitalist system they defend. Instead of squandering trillions on Wall Street and the Pentagon war machine, the working class must ensure that the resources are made available to provide state-of-the-art online learning for all students, the payment of full wages to parents who must care for their children, free and universal health-care and a massive program of regular testing and contact tracing, which is the only way to contain the deadly virus. We urge all those who wish to take up this struggle to contact us today and follow developments through the WSWS Educators Newsletter.

Schools make students sign liability waivers acknowledging risk of death
Sam Wayne, Usman Khan, WSWS, Aug 12 2020

Many colleges, universities and K-12 schools across the United States have sent letters and emails to parents and students, requiring liability waivers be signed before students can return for in-person classes. Some of the higher education institutions using such waivers include Bates College, the University of New Hampshire, Point Park University in Pittsburgh and St Xavier University. Universities such as the University of Memphis and Ohio State University sent liability waivers to all student athletes but may extend these waivers to all students. There are also a number of K-12 school districts using these waivers including Florida’s Volusia County, South Carolina’s Berkeley County, the Catholic schools and centers in St Petersburg and Tampa under superintendent Chris Pastura, and St Andrew’s Schools in Honolulu, Hawaii.

imageScreenshot of a waiver for students at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine

The purpose of these waivers is to exempt schools from liability in the event that students get infected with the coronavirus when they return to campuses and schools in the fall. Some schools and colleges are requiring students and parents to sign forms that directly suggest students will be waiving their right to hold the school liable if they become infected. Other institutions are opting for more subtle agreements that use terms like “informed consent” and “shared responsibility.” In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, stated:

Universities encourage students to think that the universities they are enrolled in are benevolent towards them, that they care about them as people. You cultivate a climate of trust, and in the context of a deadly disease, you’re busy laying the groundwork for your litigation defense.

One such agreement issued by the College of Southern Maryland, a community college in La Plata with over 6k students, includes the following language:

…by coming to campus, you indicate your understanding of these safety requirements and rules, and you agree to comply with and abide by them. In the interest of complete transparency, CSM wishes to reinforce to students, employees, and visitors that attending, visiting, or working on any CSM campus carries an inherent risk of being exposed to or contracting the coronavirus or COVID-19. By coming onto campus, you indicate your acknowledgement, acceptance, and assumption of these risks. You likewise signal, by returning to a CSM campus, that you understand the contagious nature of the virus, the potential difficulty of identifying it in others, the possibility of exposure to a person infected with COVID-19, and the risk of subsequently being infected with the disease. You further signal your acceptance and assumption of these risks.

Such COVID-19 student agreements imply that the decision to risk one’s life is being made by the student of their own volition and, should a student become infected, the students are at fault for not following the institution’s safety guidelines. As we have noted in a recent article, students are being set up to take the blame when coronavirus outbreaks occur. There are a number of issues with such agreements that must be addressed. First, students who are planning to attend school for in-person instruction are hardly making a “choice.” For college students who are old enough to have a say in the matter, they are making the decision under economic pressures, particularly in a period when millions of workers are unemployed and seeking a college education is seen as the only chance at getting a decent job. Moreover, many college students are attending institutions that either require students to return to campus for in-person or “hybrid” instruction, or make it difficult for students to attend remotely by requiring students to apply for “approval” from the school for remote learning. For younger students in primary or secondary schools, particularly those of working class families, their parents are being forced to choose between sending their children back to school in order to return to work or staying home and potentially risking foreclosure, eviction or starvation. The difficulty facing parents is compounded by the recent ending of the $600/wk federal unemployment benefit, with both Demagogs & Thugs currently negotiating how much to cut these benefits in order to create conditions that will force workers back to work. This weekly supplement, which many families have relied on to cover their expenses, was cut in half by an executive order issued by Trump last Saturday.

The fact that schools are issuing liability waivers in the first place is a glaring admission that sending students back to schools is not safe. Already there have been over 5.2m Pindos infected with COVID-19, with over 166k dying from the disease. Moreover, the claims made by some politicians, including President Trump, that children and youth are not affected by the virus are patently false. The emergence of nine new COVID-19 cases in the last week among North Paulding students and staff in Georgia tragically confirms the emerging science concerning the ability of children to spread the virus. In just the last two weeks of July, nearly 100k children tested positive for the coronavirus.

What is the basis for the back-to-school drive? For K-12 schools, the ruling class is engaging in a campaign to send students back for in-person learning so that their parents can then be pushed to return to work to produce profits. Colleges and universities are seeking the return of students to fill dormitories and dining halls, which colleges rely heavily on for revenue along with sports and tuition. While the issuing of liability waivers is being used by schools to evade liability for students getting sick, this policy must be seen within a broader context. Funding for public schooling and for higher education has been repeatedly cut over several decades. This has driven universities to continuously increase tuition costs to the point where the majority of young people seeking a college education can expect to be saddled with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt. The outbreak of the pandemic has greatly exacerbated the financial problems facing higher education, with a number of colleges not expected to financially survive the pandemic. For public K-12 schools, cuts in funding have meant overcrowded classrooms, poverty wages for teachers, shifting the cost of purchasing school materials onto the backs of parents and teachers, and allowing schools to become dilapidated. Many public schools have been shut down, and there has been an increasing drive to privatize education through the establishment of charter schools.

A fighting program for parents, students, and educators

In opposition to the back-to-school campaign, which is being carried out by the entire ruling class, the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) has issued a call for a general strike. In this statement, we call on educators and workers to raise and discuss the following demands in their schools, workplaces and neighborhoods: Keep all schools closed until the virus is eradicated! Full funding for public education and online instruction! Halt all nonessential production! For massive expansion of testing and contact tracing! The statement calls for the formation of rank-and-file safety committees to fight back against the homicidal return to work and school. We urge educators, parents and students to contact us for assistance in organizing your struggle. We call on students and youth to support this struggle and join the International Youth and Students for Social Equality. Sign up for the WSWS Educators Newsletter for updates on this fight. If you’re a student or parent who has received a liability waiver or “informed consent” agreement from a school or university, please write to us with your comments.

Diversions & posturing as school board votes to reopen school in small-town Massachusetts
Joseph Mario, WSWS, Aug 13 2020

School districts across Massachusetts are finalizing their plans for a September start to the fall semester. The vast majority have voted for a hybrid model. Though the plans vary in details, essentially students alternate between in-person and remote learning. Teachers will report to school every day and come in to contact with all of their students in a given week. For middle and high school teachers, this amounts to close contact with up to 150 or more adolescents in a five-day period. These decisions have outraged communities across the state, especially after a recent uptick in positive cases has led Governor Charlie Baker to reintroduce social distancing measures. Meanwhile, his administration has doubled down on its return to school campaign by pushing the vast majority of the state’s 289 school districts to resume full in-person learning.

Scituate, a small coastal town south of Boston, is one example of broader situation. Its school committee voted 4-1 Monday night to approve a hybrid plan for reopening schools in the fall. The meeting, which began with statements from the superintendent, Bill Burkhead, and the five members of the committee, included an extended period for public comment in which parents and teachers voiced their objections to the proposal. In general, the proceedings were marked by attempts of committee members and the superintendent to dodge accountability and an informed and spirited resistance to the plans on the part of members of the public. Up to this point, Superintendent Burkhead had uncritically accepted and praised all guidance and protocols issued by the Massachusetts Dept of Early and Secondary Education (DESE). However, in a theatrical about-face, Burkhead began Monday’s proceedings with a tirade against Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley for not providing clear directives for local boxtops. While the Baker administration and Riley in particular deserve criticism for their reckless reopening of schools, the superintendent’s sudden upswell of indignation meant only to curb and deflect public anger as they moved to reopen classes. The committee members, likewise seeking to shield themselves from criticism and accountability for what they clearly recognize as a dangerous act, lauded the superintendent’s grandstanding.

One school committee member speculated that the pandemic would “go on forever” even with a vaccine, and suggested that communities must immediately grow accustomed to the risk as with the seasonal flu. The superintendent asserted that extended school closures would result in increased suicides. A question from a teacher revealed that the committee did not fully understand what it was poised to vote on. Apparently, some of the members believed they were only approving the general plan, which by state mandate had to include measures for fully in-person, hybrid and fully remote models. Others believed they were voting to approve Superintendent Burkhead’s decision to start with the hybrid model on September 16. This was debated at length and the committee changed its mind twice before deciding to vote on hybrid to start the year. The urge to defer to state officials, to a “metric”, to a constantly receding temporal horizon when a firm decision can be made, reveals the discomfort of a body that on some level recognizes the danger of reopening schools, but are compelled by political pressure political pressure to do so.

Janice Lindblom, a social worker employed by a nursing and rehabilitation facility located in the town, was the only dissenting voice. Lindblom pointed out that a safe reopening would be impossible without large-scale proactive testing with rapid turnaround times, a condition which is simply not on the table. In stark contrast to the evasions and confusion of their local leaders, parents and teachers demonstrated a highly informed skepticism of the district’s plan, both in terms of safety and quality of education. First to comment was a teacher with twenty years of experience in the district. Citing a comprehensive study conducted in South Korea which concluded that older children transmit the disease at rates at least as high as adults, he noted that the aging faculty of the high school would face significant exposure to infection on a daily basis. He further noted that the lack of substitute teachers, a chronic problem for districts across the state, would undermine protocols meant to ensure even the minimal social distancing called for under the plan (3 to 6 feet). All such concerns were “taken under advisement,” meaning neither the superintendent nor the school committee could answer the objections, not for a lack of planning, but because the return to school in the midst of a pandemic poses an array of insoluble problems.

Several parents raised concerns about the options available to families afraid to send their children into crowded and confined spaces. The state has contracted with Edgenuity, a for-profit company that provides a fully automated learning program, which has mostly been used to “serve” students for whom traditional models have failed. In reality, the program boosts graduation rates while providing little remediation to struggling students. Parents rightly noted that this option would isolate students from their peers and teachers, provide a separate and unequal education, and effectively privatize a significant portion of Scituate Public Schools. Another veteran teacher questioned the accuracy of test positivity rates in gauging the prevalence of community spread, citing evidence that suggests actual infection rates far outpace reporting. Surprisingly, committee members agreed, contradicting their earlier calls for a “metric” to determine policy. Nevertheless, they voted to approve a return to in-person learning. In reality, this was an economic decision made many months ago. These and countless other comments exposed the plan as a dangerous and short-sighted capitulation of common sense to powerful financial and business interests, served by the Baker administration and executed by district superintendents and local school boards. The wealthy have a lot riding on the return to work, which depends on the return to school. Otherwise, stock valuations propped up by massive infusions of fictitious capital will plummet even faster than they did in mid-March.

New outbreak of COVID-19 in New Zealand
Tom Peters, WSWS, Aug 13 2020

Yesterday a “level three” lockdown was imposed in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, after four people in a family tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. Thirteen other cases linked to the South Auckland family have since been found, including four children. COVID-19 testing stations in Auckland were overwhelmed yesterday, with some people waiting up to 12 hours for a test and others reportedly being turned away. About a quarter of Auckland’s workers are staying home and schools are closed, except for the children of essential workers. The restrictions were announced for three days, but are widely expected to be extended. They are not as stringent, however, as the “level four” nationwide lockdown imposed in March-April. Under level three, construction businesses, cafes and other shops can still operate, supposedly with social distancing protocols in place. The rest of the country is on alert level two, with people told to practice physical distancing, and gatherings of more than 100 people banned. Schools and businesses remain open.

The new coronavirus cases are the first to be discovered in New Zealand in 102 days, apart from international travellers. More than 7,000 returned travellers are currently undergoing two weeks of quarantine in hotels controlled by the military. Of these, at least 23 have the virus. PM Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party-led government has been glorified by the world’s media for its response to the pandemic, including a relatively early and strict lockdown. The country has experienced just 22 deaths from the virus. The rediscovery of COVID-19 in the community, however, underscores that the pandemic cannot be defeated at a national level, but requires a coordinated and well-resourced international response that is incompatible with the capitalist nation-state system. New Zealand joins a list of countries which have seen new outbreaks after apparently suppressing the virus, including Vietnam and parts of China. Australia, which had also been praised for its response, is experiencing a severe resurgence. The outbreak in Auckland poses serious dangers to the entire working class. The source of the cases is unknown. Authorities have not identified any contact between the household and quarantine hotels or international travellers. How far the virus has spread is not known. Dr Ashley Bloomfield, director-general of health, told Radio NZ today:

It could have been in the community for some weeks.

Over the weekend, the family at the centre of the outbreak visited Rotorua and on Monday they went to Taupo, but the tourist towns have not been locked down. A positive case also visited an unidentified aged care facility in the Waikato region. The decision to limit the lockdown to level three, while mostly allowing business as usual in the rest of the country, is driven by demands from big business for the economy to remain open. Restrictions in April and May were lifted earlier than health experts had recommended, and the government previously indicated that it would not impose another nationwide lockdown. Bloomfield warned in recent weeks that the re-emergence of the virus in the community was a matter of “when, not if.” He urged people to keep records of their movements and use the government’s COVID Tracer smartphone app, which records visits to shops and other locations.

Epidemiologists have criticised the government’s failure to carry out widespread testing, which could have picked up the outbreak sooner. Testing is still limited to people with symptoms, despite the well-known fact that the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic people. Daily rates of testing fell dramatically in recent months, as the government and media trumpeted NZ’s “COVID-free” status. In early August around 2k people were being tested per day, much less than the health ministry’s low target of 4k. According to the ministry, 508,711 people have been tested in total, about 10% of the population, and there are about 270k more test kits in stock. On Aug 5, professor Michael Baker told the New Zealand Herald there was too much complacency and “smugness.” He warned that there were “multiple points” where the virus could enter the country, including quarantine facilities, airport staff and workers on ships. A series of bungles at quarantine facilities prompted the resignation of David Clark as minister of health last month. In one case on Jul 9, a man escaped from a quarantine hotel and visited a supermarket in central Auckland. He later tested positive for COVID-19. Baker noted:

If there was suddenly an outbreak in South Auckland tomorrow, for instance, it could take several generations before people were even aware of it. Small numbers of people can go on to infect large numbers of people.

University of Auckland scientist Shaun Hendy also warned:

With relatively low numbers of testing, we could potentially have a large number of secondary and tertiary cases before we actually realised what was going on.

South Auckland, where the new cases were detected, is a largely impoverished working-class area with many overcrowded and poorly-heated houses and widespread health problems. It was the epicentre for a measles outbreak last year which spread from New Zealand to Samoa, where it killed 83 people, most of them children. Epidemiologist David Skegg told Stuff on Aug 5:

The catastrophic outbreak in Victoria, Australia, could easily be replicated here, if we are not able to act quickly enough to eliminate the infection. We need a greater sense of urgency in getting prepared, including targeted community testing, sewage testing, greater capacity for contact-tracing and preparations for mass masking.

A resurgence of COVID-19 could have major political implications. With an election scheduled for Sep 19, Ardern has made the government’s pandemic response central to Labour’s campaign. The perception that the government had eliminated the virus fuelled support for the party, which is polling above 50%. In reality, while failing to undertake adequate testing and other public health measures, the government’s main response to the pandemic has been to give billions of dollars to businesses through so-called “wage subsidies,” tax cuts and bailouts. The global economic crisis triggered by the pandemic has led to tens of thousands of job losses in NZ. The tourism industry, which accounts for 10% of all jobs, has been devastated, and there have been major redundancies in retail and manufacturing. The new COVID-19 outbreak will compound the social crisis that is already pushing workers and young people to the left. The opposition National Party, which is polling between 25% and 30%, is now calling for the election to be delayed. Deputy PM Winston Peters, who leads the deeply unpopular right-wing NZ First Party in the coalition government, made similar calls in April. The government says it will make a decision on the election date before Monday.

Beirut disaster highlights dangerous ammonium nitrate stockpiles in regional Australian city
Patrick Davies, WSWS, Aug 13 2020

Last week’s catastrophic explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port has drawn fresh attention to the storage of up to four times this amount at Orica’s Kooragang plant in New South Wales. The facility is 800 m from residential areas in the Newcastle suburb of Stockton, and just 3 km from the regional port city’s central business district. The disaster in Lebanon, which killed over 200 people and injured 5k others, shows that the potential exists for a similar catastrophe in Newcastle. Orica stores between 6k and 12k tonnes of ammonium nitrate at its Kooragang facility. Industrial explosives expert Tony Richards, a former blast operations manager for Orica and BHP, told the Newcastle Herald last week:

It doesn’t matter how small the risk is, the consequences are catastrophic when you are dealing with something that can turn solid iron mountains into mounds of rubble.

Richards estimates 40k people live within the blast zone, if an explosion was to occur in Newcastle. Orica is one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of mining and commercial explosives, and other chemical products used in mining, water treatment and other industries. Ammonium nitrate produced at Kooragang is used primarily for explosives in the coal mining industry in nearby Hunter Valley. The highly-profitable company is allowed to operate, despite the real dangers, because its products are indispensable to local mining activities.

Orica’s Kooragang plant and its Botany facility south of Sydney have a dangerous history of chemical leaks and operating-licence breaches. On Aug 8 2011, up to 10 kg of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium leaked from the Kooragang facility, showering homes in Stockton with a toxic red and yellow substance. Nearby residents were not informed of the leak by Orica or government authorities for 54 hours. While under investigation for the first leak, a second spill occurred on Nov 9 2011, involving the release of hundreds of kg of ammonia. The fumes drifted into nearby suburbs, resulting in two workers at a rail yard being hospitalised. Subsequent inquiries by the NSW and the federal governments into these leaks were a whitewash. They were designed to shield Orica from community anger and politically protect Liberal and Labor state governments who allowed the company to continuously violate basic safety requirements.

The Kooragang facility breached its operating licence hundreds of times in the decade prior to the 2011 leaks, including by dumping effluent containing arsenic into the Hunter River. In Sep 2011, mercury vapours were released into the atmosphere at Orica’s Botany facility. In 2014, Orica, which made $602.5m profit that year, was fined just $768k by the NSW Environmental Protection Authority over the chemical spills and safety breaches in 2011 at its Kooragang and Botany sites. The fine was slightly more than the median price of a house in Sydney at the time. Stockton residents have been raising concerns for years over Orica’s toxic leaks in 2011 and called for the plant to be relocated away from populated areas and closer to the mines. Chemical engineer and community campaigner Keith Craig, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last week:

This is a totally inappropriate place to have such a dangerous material produced and stored. Many people would be killed and injured if we had an accident at Orica.

Australian PM Scott Morrison last week attempted to play down the dangers of a Beirut-like disaster in Newcastle insisting that “the regulations here in Australia are very strong.” These assurances, given Orica’s violation of environmental policies, are worthless. While ammonium nitrate normally becomes explosive when it comes into contact with fuel or oil, it can erupt due to shock, fire or contact with a contaminant. Orica claims to adhere to all state and federal regulations and insists its stockpiles are adequately contained by fire proof materials and separated by designated exclusion zones. The company’s comfortable arrangements with state government authorities increase the danger of complacency towards safety regulations. This relationship is underpinned by Orica’s production of explosives for coal mining amid the state’s dependence on royalties from the sector amounting to around $1.6b/yr.

Orica is also not the only company storing vast quantities of ammonium nitrate in close proximity to Newcastle. In 2012, the Crawfords Freightlines trucking company was found to have been storing in excess of its limit of 2k tonnes at its Sandgate facility west of Newcastle, just 500 m from homes. The inspection also revealed poor chemical and dangerous goods storage. The EPA fined Crawfords only $15k for the breaches. The Beirut disaster is just the most recent deadly example of an ammonium nitrate explosion. Others include a 2015 explosion in the Chinese port of Tianjin, in which 800 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were detonated. Some 165 people died and almost 800 more were injured. In Apr 2013, 15 people were killed and 200 wounded when 240 tonnes of fertiliser at a plant in West, a city in Texas, exploded. Around 80 houses and a school were destroyed. In 2001, a fire at a fertiliser plant in Toulouse, France, resulted in the explosion of up to 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, killing 31 people and injuring over 2.4k. The blast shattered windows up to 3 km away. The deadly explosion in Beirut is another clear warning that large stockpiles of ammonium nitrate are catastrophes waiting to happen while this industry, and the giant profit-making corporations that run it, are protected by capitalist governments.

South Asian governments ignore millions of monsoon flood victims
Wimal Perera, WSWS, Aug 13 2020

Rescuers work at the site of a mudslide. Flooding killed at least 15 people and buried 20 homes
of tea plantation workers in southern India on Friday, police said. (AP Photo)

Heavy monsoon rains since May across South Asia, including in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan have caused floods and landslides leaving 1.3k dead or missing and displacing over 18.5m. The governments’ failure to take adequate relief measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified flood victims’ suffering. They are also contracting water-borne diseases. In India, over 13m people are affected, and 900 deaths have been reported from the states of Bihar, Assam, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Maharashtra and Kerala. In the southern state of Kerala, heavy rains in recent days triggered floods and landslides in Rajamala in the Idukki district, killing 52. In impoverished Bihar state, about 24 died and 7.5m have been affected. In Assam, 136 deaths and over 5.7m victims have been reported. Five persons have died in Mumbai. Media reports indicate 239 deaths and tens of thousands of flood victims in West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

In Bangladesh, which is seeing its worst flooding in two decades, districts in the northern and central parts of the country, including the capital, Dhaka, were worst hit. The deaths stand at 145, and over 5.5m have been affected. In Nepal, floods and landslides have left 200 dead and 108 missing since May. In Pakistan 58 have died and in Afghanistan, at least 16. Floods have damaged river embankments, bridges, culverts and roads, and houses, crops, livestock, domestic animals and poultry have been devastated. Victims lack drinking water and food. Social conditions are worsened by cuts to jobs and wages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governments of South Asian countries have responded to the crisis with contempt and hypocrisy, refusing to provide adequate relief materials, rescue equipment, medicine, trained manpower and infrastructure. Hundreds of people in Bihar staged protests, demanding basic needs such as drinking water and food. They blocked a bridge in Muzaffarpur on Jul 27, accusing the government of neglect. After the protest, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar ordered a pittance of Rs 6k ($80) paid “to the accounts of flood-affected families,” to dissipate social anger. Victims in Assam complained they did not receive aid. Nilima Khatun, a villager in Assam, said:

Our villages and all nearby villages have been under chest-deep water for about a week now. We are passing days in misery with no relief coming our way from the government.

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina has declared that she advised state officials to ensure adequate facilities for those affected. However, flood victims are starving since relief supplies are insufficient. On Aug 10, the Daily Star reported:

People whose houses have been damaged by floods are passing their days in extreme hardship amid insufficient government relief and support for their rehabilitation.

Arif Hossain from Munshiganj District in central Bangladesh, who lived by transporting people on his small boat, told Interpress Service:

Many people in the areas left the villages. Those who have no place to go, like me, are staying here in homes that are already flooded. We’re staying in a room submerged in knee-deep water. I haven’t received any kind of aid.

While governments claim they are providing enough relief supplies, Dr Abhishek Rimal, Regional Emergency Health Coordinator of Asia Pacific for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said on August 6: “Millions of people are also gathered in confined spaces or sleeping in temporary shelters with limited access to food, safe water and protection from mosquitoes, creating the perfect storm for the spread of mosquito and water-borne diseases.” These include malaria, dengue, diarrhea, and skin diseases.

At least 10k people have fallen ill, with children among the worst affected by rising malnutrition. According to UNICEF estimates, around 1.3m Bangladeshi children will be affected by flooding this year. Flood victims also face the devastating COVID-19 pandemic in crowded makeshift camps. India has become the third-worst impacted country in the world, with 2.3m cases and over 46k deaths. Bangladesh is now the 15th-worst impacted country, with over 260k infections and over 3.5k deaths. Nepal has surpassed 23k cases with 83 deaths, and Afghanistan 37k cases with 1,354 deaths. At a meeting on Monday with chief ministers of six states (Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala) India’s Hindu-supremacist prime minister, Narendra Modi, declared that his government will install a “permanent system for forecasting of floods.” Such promises have frequently been made but not implemented in the past. In a nationalistic attack on Nepal, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said Indian authorities are “not receiving full cooperation from Nepal for the past few years.”

Flooding is an ecologically natural and sometimes essential process in any landscape with rivers and streams. In India, where the monsoonal climate brings concentrated rainfall in two to three months each year, massive river flooding is a yearly event across much of the country. Today, however, it is not just a natural, but a man-made disaster. The landscapes near rivers have been ravaged by unplanned “development,” haphazard “urbanization” by respective governments and corporations. Hundreds of thousands of families have been forced to settle in flood prone areas, with no early warning or evacuation systems. Large river basins such as Ganga-Brahmaputra basin are segmented by arbitrary “national boundaries,” where rival nation-states’ policies undermine common watershed planning. Even the meagre funding allocated for flood management goes into hard infrastructure projects, such as dams or embankment raising, which can become problems rather than solutions in the long run. For example, in the state of Odisha, nine of the 14 major floods reported in the last decade were due to the sudden release of water from the Hirakud dam. One hundred and fifty people died in the worst flood in three decades in Gujarat in 2006, when the Ukai dam had to release large amounts of water. Such failures become more disastrous with time as these static structures cannot accommodate the extremes in rainfall due to global climate change.

In the past few decades, a global consensus has emerged among experts and engineers on the need for Integrated Flood Management. The Associated Program for Flood Management defines this as a “process of integrated land and water resources development, with a view to maximizing the efficient use of flood plains and minimizing loss of life and property.” Such an approach requires a massive reallocation of funding to thoroughly study and monitor the watershed ecosystems, relocate communities if necessary, restore degraded ecosystems, and build multi-purpose engineering systems to manage water without harming ecological processes. Recent developments in communication technology, remote sensing, and computer modeling, and rapidly advancing skill levels of the working class, have laid a strong foundation to realize IFM. The main barrier remains the capitalist nation-state system, based on private profit rather than human needs. Protection from floods and effective utilization and sharing of waters from these rivers requires socialist planning by establishing a Union of Socialist Republics of South Asia as part of a world socialist federation.

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