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WHO Adviser on Meat Plants: If We’re at War, the Weapons We Need Are Tests and PPE, Not Pork

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As President Trump invokes the Defense Production Act to bar local governments from closing meatpacking plants around the United States, we get response from a longtime adviser to the World Health Organization. “When Congress passed that act, it certainly did not have in mind that the president has the power or the right to put workers’ lives and health at risk,” says Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization Center on National and Global Health Law. Gostin also discusses why he joined 40 leading center directors in a declaration this week that urges Trump and Congress to restore and increase WHO funding.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. This week, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to bar local governments from closing meatpacking plants around the United States. His executive order comes as U.S. beef, pork and poultry processing plants are linked to areas with the highest rates of coronavirus transmission in the country. Topping the list is a region around Sioux City, Iowa, where confirmed coronavirus cases are more than doubling every day, with outbreaks at a massive Tyson Foods beef plant and a Seaboard Triumph Foods pork plant. Trump’s order declares meat plants critical infrastructure. He announced it on Workers’ Memorial Day, an international day of remembrance and action for workers killed or disabled on the job. At least 20 meatpacking workers have died from COVID-19. Thousands have fallen ill from the disease.

This comes as federal guidelines for social distancing are set to expire today, leaving states to determine their plans for reopening. The Iowa governor, Kim Reynolds, has threatened workers who don’t want to return to work because of the coronavirus, saying they will not receive unemployment benefits. Nebraska workers also risk losing unemployment if they refuse to turn to their jobs. This is Trump responding to a reporter in the Oval Office Wednesday.

REPORTER: Mr. President, what can you do to help businesses with liability issues as workers come back in states that have opened up?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, as you know, we just worked with the meat processors, and if you think about it, a form of delivery. We have tremendous product. We have ample supply. But there was a bottleneck caused by this whole pandemic, and it was pretty — it was potentially pretty serious. And I just got off the phone with the biggest in the world, I mean, the biggest distributors there are, the big companies that you’ve been reading about. They are so thrilled. They’re so happy. They’re all gung-ho. And we solved their problems. We unblocked some of the bottlenecks.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said, quote, “We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork, and poultry products.”

Well, for more, we’re joined by Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University, directs the World Health Organization Center on National and Global Health Law and has served as a senior adviser to the WHO for three decades. He is also the global editor for JAMA. That’s The Journal of the American Medical Association. He’s joining us from his home in Washington, D.C.

Lawrence Gostin, interestingly, last time you joined us on Democracy Now! several years ago, it was to discuss the Obama administration caving to the meat lobby in its dietary guidelines despite World Health Organization findings that processed meat can cause cancer. I want to welcome you back to Democracy Now! In a minute, we’re going to ask you about Trump’s attack on the World Health Organization, removing its funding. But right now I want to ask you about this massive decision he has made. As thousands of workers have taken ill with COVID-19, President Trump issues this executive order saying states cannot close meatpacking plants. Talk about the significance of this.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: Yeah. Well, let me — remember, the Defense Production Act was really to kind of marshal our production for kind of a warlike state. And so, if you think about, you know, if we’re in a war now, the weapons we need is not meat and pork. The weapons we actually need are testing equipment, ventilators, and particularly personal protective equipment for our brave health workers, our doctors and nurses and other staff in hospitals. So that’s what the act should be used for, not for producing actually quite unhealthy products like beef and pork. But that’s even a sideshow. The real thing —

AMY GOODMAN: Not to mention the very concern of the workers, as they don’t have protective equipment or the tests that they need.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: No, they don’t. Exactly. No, that’s a really good point. Thank you.

You know, also, the act, when Congress passed that act, it certainly did not have in mind that the president has the power or the right to put workers’ lives and health at risk. And remember, it’s not just the workers that are being put at risk. It’s the workers’ spouses. It’s their children. It’s their wider families all being placed at risk. No president does have the right to endanger the people of the United States, and certainly not to produce an unhealthy product.

So, what do we do now? I mean, I think, you know, I would urge states, while — they might still want to close those meatpacking plants down and let the federal government try to litigate it. But if not, they certainly should exercise their public health powers, because Congress clearly did not intend to prevent states from assuring the health and safety of the population, and particularly the workforce. And so, just for a start, state public health departments and governors should slap on really major sanctions against firms that don’t provide adequate personal protection equipment, adequate social distancing, and to take every possible rigorous measure to ensure the health and safety of these women and men. Now, this is, remember — you know, would any of you want to go to — any of your listeners want to go to work —

AMY GOODMAN: These men and women are overwhelmingly immigrants and African Americans.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: They are. And, you know, to say that we can just trust the meatpacking operators and the industry to do this, well, self-evidently, we can’t. If you go back into history, there’s a long history of abusing immigrant labor in meatpacking plants. And also self-evidently, safety precautions haven’t been taken, because people have died, and they’re getting sick in their thousands.

And so, why would we — why would we want to put hard-working Americans and their families at risk? Why would we want to have them choose between their livelihoods and their lives or the lives of their children? It’s really — it has no heart. It has no compassion. And a leader, first and foremost — the first responsibility of any leader, any government, is the health and safety and well-being of its population. So this is really unforgivable, I think.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Gostin, to turn now to the World Health Organization, you’ve advised the WHO for decades. President Trump, of course, first accused China, as well as the WHO, for being responsible for the pandemic. Could you respond to that? And, of course, Trump then cutting funding to the WHO. Could you respond to his decision to do that, as well as the fact that you’ve said repeatedly that whatever the failings of the WHO and China, the U.S. is responsible itself for its lack of preparedness for the pandemic? Could you talk also about what the U.S. should have done differently and should do now?

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: Yeah, I mean, there’s so much — so many levels there. Let me just start with this. You know, I have worked with the World Health Organization under many director-generals for many years. And the current director-general, the first African head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros, is — I know him well. He’s a man of great integrity, great compassion. He cares a lot.

So, working with WHO, it can be — sometimes can be maddening. Yes, they can be slow. They can be bureaucratic. But, my god, what they’ve done for the world. They eradicated smallpox. They’re on the verge of eradicating wild polio. They work in child and maternal health. They save the lives of under-5 children. They save the lives of women undergoing childbirth. They work in diet and obesity and cancer and heart disease, mental health, injury prevention. I could go on and on. So, to actually just try to kick the World Health Organization after all it’s done, on a budget around the size of one large U.S. hospital — I mean, rather than criticizing WHO, we should be dropping our jaw and thanking them for all the things that they’ve done.

So, what about this particular episode with the coronavirus in China? President Trump has said WHO took China’s side, but there is no sides to a pandemic. And yes, Dr. Tedros did praise China, but he has also praised President Trump. That’s just diplomacy. I don’t think that Dr. Tedros thinks that either President Trump or Xi Jinping have done a particularly great job on this. And basically, WHO has been caught in a geopolitical power struggle between the world’s two superpowers. And at a time of a once-in-a-century public health crisis, that couldn’t be more destructive.

So what should the United States do? It should lead a global coalition to at least double — and at least double — the funding of the World Health Organization. Right now we have the WHO we deserve, because we’ve provided it with pitiful financing. We’ve given it control over less than one-quarter of its budget, because we just earmark all the funds that we want for our pet projects. We don’t give it any political backing. And the proof positive is, as soon as you get on the wrong side of the American president, he withdraws funding. So, how is that providing the kind of political capital the director-general needs to speak truth to power?

So, I see this as a — you know, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, but it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Out of every major catastrophe, we have to make an opportunity of it. And for me, that opportunity would be to provide an emboldened and strengthened, well-funded, politically backed World Health Organization, so in future pandemics and for future health crises, we have the WHO we so richly need, which is a powerful one that will stand up to big governments and stand for science, health and equity. And that’s what the WHO is there for. And that’s why —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: — it was the first United Nations agency.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much, Professor Lawrence Gostin, founding O’Neill chair in Global Health Law at Georgetown University, director of the World Health Organization Center on National and Global Health Law, also global editor for JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, for another edition of Democracy Now! Stay safe.

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