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Why the Migrant Caravan Story Is a Climate Change Story

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A Honduran migrant caravan heading to the U.S., as it is stopped at a border barrier on the Guatemala-Mexico international bridge in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas state, Mexico, on Oct. 19. PEDRO PARDO / AFP / Getty Images

By Todd Miller

Less than a mile south of the U.S.-Mexico border, in Sasabe, Mexico, a Guatemalan man named Giovanni (whose first name is used to protect his undocumented status) propped up his feet while an EMT applied antibiotic ointment to his feet in the shade of a cottonwood. Giovanni left his home country because of a catastrophic drought and was attempting to unite with his brothers who were already in Dallas. After trying to cross the border into the Arizona desert, his feet were ravaged: discolored, covered in gashes and tender red blisters. One toenail had been ripped off. Across the arroyo or dry wash, were about 30 more prospective border crossers, primarily Guatemalan, some awaiting a similar medical checkup, others stocking up on water and food.


It was July, and several days before in a 110-degree heat wave, he had crossed the border with a small group of about five other people from Guatemala. After 14 hours, they ran out of water. After 21 hours, Giovanni gave up and turned back alone. He had no water, no food and quickly lost his orientation, but he made it back to Sasabe.

Giovanni is part of a Central American exodus of people that has been increasing for decades. The recent caravans are the most recent chapter. And while there are complex and compounding reasons for the massive displacements and migrations—especially rising violence (in places like Honduras, for example, after the 2009 military coup) and systemic poverty—there is another driver behind the movement of people seeking refuge in the U.S.: climate change.

As the EMT tenderly wrapped an adhesive bandage around Giovanni's feet, Giovanni told me about the droughts back in his home of San Cristobal Frontera. It hadn't rained for "40 days and 40 nights," he said. The crops in the milpas—subsistence farm plots of corn, beans, and squash—were wilting, and the harvests failing. The cattle were skinny and dying of starvation. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador lie in the trajectory of the so-called "dry corridor" of Central America that stretches from Southern Mexico to Panama. This epithet is a recently adopted description of the region, to describe the droughts that have risen in intensity and frequency over the last 10 years.

Most members of the human caravans are from these three "dry corridor" countries.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, "Families and communities have already started to suffer from disasters and the consequences of climate change." From 2008 to 2015, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported that at least 22.5 million had been displaced per year because of climate-related-events, the equivalent of 62,000 people per day. Over this time, environmental forces uprooted more people than war. And in 2017 alone, disasters displaced 4.5 million people in the Americas.

In September, the World Food Programme essentially confirmed what Giovanni had told me earlier that summer in Sasabe. According to reporting by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the WFP said, "Poor harvests caused by drought in Central America could leave more than two million people hungry" and "climate change was creating drier conditions in the region." In July, El Salvador declared a red alert as the drought affected 77,000 corn farmers, and Honduras reported that as much as 80 percent of its maize and bean crops were lost. The accumulated losses of these crops exceeded 694,366 acres in Guatemala and El Salvador. This summer's devastating losses came after other recent, hard-hitting dry spells, particularly from 2014 to 2016, that had already left millions on the brink of hunger.

As climate scientist Chris Castro told me in 2017, Central America is ground zero for climate change in the Americas. Among the thousands of people caravanning north are climate refugees.

Climate change is a force in Central America. As one Honduran subsistence farmer named Guillermo told me in 2015 in an interview published in my book Storming the Wall: The weather is changing. And that is affecting food supply. Guillermo's first name is used because of safety concerns.

"We used to have a place—a warehouse—to store the community's food," Guillermo said. But now, he said, that storage house was empty, and he described how the first rains of the season—which used to be so reliable—had become unpredictable.

Guillermo's small coastal community of Vallecito is one of about 46 Garífuna communities in Honduras. The Garífuna people are descendants of Caribbean Native Arawak as well as Central and Western African people forcibly brought to this hemisphere by White enslavers. Coastal Garífuna communities are subject to storm surges and hurricanes (such as Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 7,000 people in Honduras in 1998) and are at the center of land disputes over ever-expanding African Palm plantations, tourism, and other development projects, some U.S.-backed, which Garífuna community members have called a "systematic eviction" from their land by corporate and state forces.

Drought, crop failure, storms and land disputes pit the rich versus the poor: All of these things have displaced people in Vallecito and other north coast communities, some of whom have moved to increasingly volatile cities—like San Pedro Sula, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world—in search of work.

According to the 2017 Global Climate Risk Index, both Guatemala and Honduras are among the countries most affected by climate change. From 1996 to 2015, Honduras had 61 extreme climate events and an average of 301 climate related deaths per year. Guatemala had 75 events and an average 97 deaths per year. According to the report, over the last couple decades, Central America has experienced a temperature rise between 0.7 and 1 degree Celsius.

Meanwhile, there are increased and increasing border controls in Central America, Mexico and, of course, the U.S. In April 2016, Miriam Miranda, the coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, a Garífuna rights organization, told teleSUR English that rather than truly address global warming, world leaders were instead "preparing to avoid and control human displacement as a result of catastrophes" through "ramped-up militarization and the so-called war on drugs in indigenous territories."

According to the border strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence, by effectively making the urban borderlands impassable, people would be forced to cross in places such as Sasabe, areas so desolate and dangerous that the environment itself became a weapon.

This was what Giovanni experienced when he had to turn back to Sasabe, Mexico. Indeed when Giovanni turned around to try to get back to Sasabe, he was walking through a place where thousands of bodies of other crossers have been found in one of the least discussed humanitarian crises in the U.S.

The harshest impacts of climate change are reserved specifically for people like Giovanni: the poor, the marginalized, the displaced and in this case, the unauthorized.

Historically, U.S. foreign policy has often contributed to increased Central American displacement. When tens of thousands of Guatemalans and Salvadorans crossed into the U.S. in the 1980s, they were fleeing wars by military dictatorships financed, armed, and trained by the U.S. These are the same places where U.S.-based corporate oligarchies—such as the United Fruit Company—have profited at the expense of locals living in poverty or extreme poverty.

And now there's climate change. The U.S. leads in greenhouse gas emissions, having produced 27 percent of the world's emissions since 1850. The European Union follows with 25 percent, China 11 percent, Russia 8 percent. And U.S. emissions (314,772.1 millions of metric tons of CO2) dwarf those of Guatemala (213.4), Honduras (115.5) and El Salvador (135.2). In other words, the U.S. has contaminated the atmosphere with 678 times more CO2 than the three countries whose people are in the caravan.

Countries, like the U.S., that have emitted the most CO2 are fortifying their borders against people from countries who have emitted the least. And these are countries where people, like Giovanni and Guillermo, are feeling the effects of climate change. In the future, projections for climate displacement are staggering, and range from 25 million to 1 billion by 2050. One estimate from the World Bank says that climate change will displace 17 million Latin Americans by 2050. Another forecast projects that one in 10 Mexicans between 15 and 65 will be displaced.

Yet, instead of any sort of reckoning with the human displacement caused by climate change, Washington only deploys more armed agents, builds more walls, and deploys active duty troops authorized to use lethal force to stop caravans of refugees. Among these are refugees who recently tried to cross the border from Tijuana and were held back with tear gas fired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. These border crossers were primarily from Honduras; it's likely some were from communities like Guillermo's. And elsewhere, it's almost certain that Giovanni—or people from his community—are among those arriving at the border every day.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.