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Archive for June 25th, 2020

He Removed Labels That Said “Medical Use Prohibited,” Then Tried to Sell Thousands of Masks to Officials Who Distribute to Hospitals

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J. David McSwane reports in ProPublica:

Lucas Rensko was making money through a popular handyman-for-hire app called TaskRabbit, doing odd jobs and delivering groceries, when he picked up a task that led him to a leaky-roofed warehouse on a tattered road in northwest San Antonio.

Inside, a man named Jaime Rivera had set up long tables where five or six other “Taskers” earning about $20 an hour were ripping Chinese masks out of plastic bags and stuffing them into new ones that were identical but for one potentially deadly difference. The old packages were labeled in all caps “MEDICAL USE PROHIBITED,” meaning not to be used by doctors and nurses who need the strongest protection from tiny particles carrying the novel coronavirus. The new bags, intended to make their way to Texas hospitals, simply omitted that warning.

This seemingly small deception highlights a huge problem for medical workers whose best defense against a virus that ravages the body with horrifying complexity is a simple, but trustworthy, mask. That trust has eroded as Chinese-made masks claiming, sometimes falsely, to be 95% effective at filtering virus-laden particles made their way into hospitals and now local convenience stores. You might have bought them: KN95s.

Texas officials have tried to block ineffective masks from making their way to hospitals with screenings and by rejecting anything labeled as non-medical, yet at the same time, the mysterious brokers sourcing millions of masks were working hard to evade those safeguards. The operation Rensko witnessed had the potential to push faulty masks into the Texas supply chain just as Gov. Greg Abbott eased lockdown restrictions and COVID-19 infections began to soar.

“He kind of takes us on this tour of his facility, which is essentially a shelled out warehouse,” Rensko, 36, told me over the phone, detailing how Rivera described the work at the warehouse. “He was saying they were designated for personal or residential use, not for medical. And so what he was doing was basically putting them into other packaging where the city of San Antonio and the state of Texas are able to look at them and then sell them for medical purposes.”

Rensko knew something wasn’t quite right and walked away from the TaskRabbit gig. He told his wife, who told a friend, who told another friend, who told me.

Over weeks of reporting, I’d learn that Rensko had scratched the surface of a larger scheme involving a Silicon Valley investor named Brennan Mulligan to sell what Texas health officials later flagged as “fraudulent” masks to the agency directing protective equipment to hospitals. Mulligan had enlisted Rivera, who was desperate for money after the pandemic had sapped his primary source of income, building furniture and manual labor via TaskRabbit. As countless others have, the two had a chance to make money off of the country’s public health nightmare.

When I caught up with Mulligan, he emphasized that he didn’t break any U.S. laws in his mask business. Rivera would acknowledge it was a gray area that had caught the attention of federal investigators. Both would defend their actions as simply cutting through onerous red tape put up by the Chinese and U.S. governments to get masks to those desperate for them.

The absurdity, greed and incompetence surrounding the distribution of coronavirus-era masks has taken me to Chicago, California and, now, Texas. The federal government’s efforts to get protective equipment out quickly to essential workers had failed spectacularly, and the supply chain that normally moves products from producers to vendors to end users had almost completely broken down. Counterfeit masks were flooding the market, and prices for even unreliable masks had skyrocketed.

I did what due diligence I could from my Washington, D.C., apartment before buying a plane ticket. I researched Rivera and saw on Facebook that he was a father of six who danced in his driveway and camped on the beach with the kids.

But his Facebook page also told part of the supply-chain story. Rivera had posted several photos in late April of beaten up boxes bursting at the seams with masks labeled as KN95s, similar to the American-made N95 masks produced by 3M and other manufacturers. But the Chinese masks often don’t pass muster with U.S. regulators, who screen for effectiveness in blocking small particles and certify masks that meet their standards.

The masks Rivera posted photos of were face masks with earloops that don’t fit securely around the head, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends. While the earloop-masks might offer some protection, the FDA warns that they’re not effective enough to be used in a medical setting.

The 6-foot stack of boxes were labeled as coming from a Chinese manufacturer, Guangzhou Aiyinmei Co. Ltd., which had been identified by the FDA as one of the companies producing ineffective KN95s. The masks filter as little as 39% of particles, according to testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re so ineffective that Canada issued a recall. The FDA had hastily approved them and others for health care use at the beginning of the pandemic, but it changed its mind last month, even as millions of the masks circulated in the U.S.

Rivera also posted an intriguing screenshot of a $2,000 payment he had received via Venmo, the person-to-person payment app, from a sender with the initials BM.

The payment memo read: “4/17 kn95 37.5 drop off and 50k hand-off …”

“A day’s work!” Rivera boasted about April 17, the day he used a U-Haul rental truck to deliver nearly 100,000 masks to two buyers.

Beneath his Facebook post, a friend commented, “Looks like code for a drug deal.”

Back when I had friends and could go places, I used Venmo to split restaurant and bar tabs, sometimes offering cheeky comments that I mark as private so random people can’t see. But Rivera left all of his transactions and comments public, allowing anyone to see them on a smartphone. Venmo showed that Rivera’s payments from Mulligan, aka BM, included one for “131 boxes to TDEM,” an acronym for the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the state’s version of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. TDEM supplies lifesaving gear to hospitals coping with COVID-19 cases.

Mulligan, the investor, also left his payments public. They showed that he and Rivera had paid several other people for services including deliveries of masks and “repackaging.”

Mulligan turned up in an internet scrub as a successful San Francisco businessman. He founded a company whose proprietary software allowed brands like Reebok and Nike to customize products, then sold that enterprise. He is now the CEO of SKYOU Inc., a “manufacture on demand” business whose online 3D design software allows companies to create unique shirts and hoodies and have them shipped from China.

At first, it seemed odd that a tech entrepreneur would wade into mask trading, but it jibed with my previous reporting, which found that behind every mask sale, there’s a mystery investor.

After the mask supply crisis first surfaced, federal agencies and states went into business with nearly anyone who said they could deliver protective equipment. Masks were the first priority. Here and abroad, textile factories switched to stitching masks. Hundreds of new companies popped up and won government contracts, including some with shady records. My reporting found a high-end juicer salesman, a former state attorney general and dozens in the marijuana business who had become mask brokers.

Thus was born an unregulated market fueled by unprecedented scarcity and unending demand.

The Lone Star State

I met Rensko at a Starbucks around the corner from the warehouse where the mask operation went down. It was only 96 degrees, but it felt hotter, that first day Texans know that the weak spring is turning to summer scorch.

He said Rivera had called him the day after he walked away from the TaskRabbit gig. Rivera “apologized, so he knew something was up.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

And see also:

The Indian Health Service Wants to Return 1 Million KN95 Masks It Bought From a Former White House Official

The former official, Zach Fuentes, is refusing to take back the masks even though IHS said they did not meet FDA standards. His company’s lawyer says the IHS is trying to cancel the order for “political reasons.”

The Trump administration is rotten with crooks and grifters.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2020 at 5:11 pm

How America Exports Police Violence Around the World

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America for years has been one of the biggest arms dealers in the world, and US export of violence goes beyond that. Laura Weiss writes in the New Republic:

As the protest movement responding to the police killing of George Floyd has erupted across the country in recent weeks, my now habitual encounters with police clad in full riot gear in my usually calm Brooklyn neighborhood have been a new and disconcerting experience. In certain moments, while listening to close-flying helicopters and begrudgingly following curfew mandates, as journalists are roughly arrested and beaten up by police, I’ve found myself responding to the surreal scenes with some familiar clichés. I’m not in Brooklyn anymore, Toto, “things” like this “don’t happen here.” Those of us who experience white privilege in the United States don’t typically encounter these sights. These police tactics are usually pushed out of the frame, beyond our sight lines, relegated only to poor minority neighborhoods in America as well as crisis-torn countries of the so-called “global south.”

In fact, the connections between my streets and the streets of others—between policing in the United States and policing in “third world” countries—run deep. While the U.S. polices Black and brown neighborhoods within its own borders as internal colonies, it exports those same militarized and abusive policing techniques to almost every country in the world, through both the State Department and Department of Defense, as well as private contractors. Though it’s difficult to obtain a full accounting, in 2018 alone, the U.S. appropriated over $19 billion in security aid to military and police forces to 144 countries around the world, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.

The role of the U.S. in perpetuating abusive police tactics in other countries has not figured into most conversations around defunding and abolishing the police in recent weeks. But the two are inextricably linked by a common philosophy, and curbing police abuses here at home should force both changes to the way the U.S. provides assistance to police and military forces abroad and a larger reckoning with the neocolonial power structures that enable the U.S. to continue to export its policing strategies and its guns to poorer and less powerful countries in the first place.

“You pick the point in history since the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States has been bringing its national security apparatus abroad and using police in other countries to achieve its goals,” said Stuart Schrader, a historian and author of Badges Beyond Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing. From its assistance to military dictatorships during the Cold War to its ongoing support of two endless conflicts with metaphysical constructs—the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror”—the U.S. has become firmly attached, Schrader points out, to a long commitment.

America’s infernal policing of the global order has manifested itself especially heavily in Latin America. There, U.S. counternarcotics aid has provided counterinsurgency training, equipment—such as tanks and Black Hawk helicopters—and tactical and intelligence support to police and military across the region. In addition to government aid, the U.S. has exported “broken windows” policing to cities across the region. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has pocketed millions from consulting with Latin American leaders on how to apply the strategy to their cities. Such policing strategies also disproportionately target both Indigenous and Black people across the Americas.

“The problem of anti-Black policing … is one that is very much alive throughout our hemisphere, and around the world,” said Christen Smith, an anthropologist whose work focuses on police violence against Black people in Brazil. “The way we police at home is also the way we police elsewhere.”


Walking home from protests in recent weeks has brought me back to my time spent living in Mexico City, where police in riot gear, carrying AK-47s, standing around passively on any given day in upper-class commercial districts, are a pedestrian sight. There, their bloated largesse is on full display, as they stare off blankly into the distance, fidgeting and picking their noses. The fact that they are holding weapons that could easily kill you is a passive, constant threat.

The U.S. government has funneled over $3 billion in security and development assistance to Mexico in recent decades, much of it in the name of stopping the flow of illicit drugs—and just as often, its people—to the U.S. This funding has involved multiple attempts to reform the police. These efforts typically amount to little more than a purge of personnel, followed by a rebranding of different “elite” police units, every time a new president is sworn into office. Other half-hearted measures involve the transfers of equipment, training, strategy, guns, and intelligence to Mexican police and military. The overall strategy, carried out in the name of the war on drugs, has chiefly involved the targeting and capturing of the heads of drug cartels. This has mostly led to a splintering and proliferation of violence across Mexico, leaving over 230,000 dead and over 60,000 disappeared since 2008.

Meanwhile, the security buildup of the U.S.-Mexico border wall has come alongside similar training and assistance to Mexico’s border patrol, notably in helping the Mexican government beef up security along its southern border to stop and deter Central American asylum-seekers before they even reach the U.S. border. Mexico’s border patrol, like our own, has been implicated in systematic human rights abuses.

The U.S. has also funded judicial reforms, as well as some nongovernmental organizations working on corruption and impunity in Mexico. But today, some 90 percent of crimes in Mexico remain unsolved. Mexicans know that the problem with the cops goes far beyond “a few bad apples.” Since the drug war began, it’s become increasingly difficult to locate exactly where the cops and the military end and where the “criminal organizations” they’ve pledged to fight begin. Despite this, the overall law enforcement strategy goes mostly unquestioned. This is largely due to the power dynamics at play: If Mexico—or any number of countries, for that matter—decided to do things differently, the U.S. would retaliate by cutting off aid, imposing sanctions, or even supporting a change to a more like-minded regime.

As in the U.S., it’s difficult for many to see an alternative to the police—though in some parts of rural Mexico, Indigenous communities have sought to expel the police from their neighborhoods and replace them with their own self-defense forces. But the police and military maintain a monopoly on authorized violence, no matter how “impervious to reform” these institutions might be, as Smith put it.

Though movements against state violence have deep roots in Latin America, the recent protests in the U.S. have reverberated in unique ways across the region, too, bringing renewed attention to racist and violent policing practices in these countries. In Guadalajara, Mexico, protests . . .

Continue reading.

I’m reminded how the US taught torture techniques and organized and supported death squads in Central America during the Reagan Administration and afterward.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2020 at 5:01 pm

The Pandemic’s Worst-Case Scenario Is Unfolding in Brazil

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Julia Leite, Simone Preissler Iglesias, Martha Viotti Beck, and Ethan Bronner report in Bloomberg Businessweek:

On a recent afternoon in São Luís, the capital of Maranhão state in northeastern Brazil, Hosana Lima Castro sat on a flimsy plastic chair in front of her house as stray dogs sniffed potholes in the narrow street and a few neighborhood kids launched kites. The bar across the way, where a few months ago an acquaintance of Castro’s had been shot, was closed because of the pandemic.

Her job at a convenience store had disappeared too, so Castro, who’s 43 and shares her modest home with her father, two brothers, and two of her kids, had nowhere else to be. Although the novel coronavirus is widespread across Brazil’s northeast, she wasn’t wearing a mask. Nor was anyone else in her crowded neighborhood, where basic services have been so neglected that many residents have no access to clean water.

Castro’s brother Moises, a garbage collector, was the first in her family to get sick. Then her other brother, Luciano, did too, followed by their father, Francisco, who has diabetes. He suffered badly, struggling to breathe and running a soaring fever. But no one in Castro’s household went to the hospital—a place that some in São Luís believe makes patients sicker than when they came in, or worse. “That would be a death sentence,” Castro said.

As Asia, Western Europe, and parts of the U.S. emerge from what will hopefully be the worst of the pandemic, the virus in Brazil isn’t slowing down. Between late May and mid-June the country galloped past Spain, Italy, and the U.K. in total fatalities, which now exceed 51,000, the second-highest toll after the U.S. It’s second in overall cases too, with more than 1 million confirmed infections. With local officials now lifting quarantines despite continued growth in cases, it’s conceivable that, when Covid-19 finally recedes, Brazil will have been hit harder than any other country.

The reasons Brazil has made such a perfect host for the coronavirus are diverse and not yet fully understood. Like the U.S. it never issued nationwide rules for social distancing. Even if the government had wanted to, the rules would have been impossible to enforce in a country of 210 million where some states are larger in land area than France. That left local officials to do as they saw fit, issuing orders that varied wildly and sometimes contradicted each other. Poverty is certainly also part of the picture: In the densely packed favelas threaded through Brazilian cities, social distancing isn’t feasible, and not working means not eating, especially with the cash-strapped state unable to provide enough support. So is the dysfunction of the government. Overcrowding in public hospitals is a long-standing problem, as is graft among the people who are supposed to build new ones.

And then there’s President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who came to power with a 2018 campaign that echoed Donald Trump’s pledges to “drain the swamp.” Since the coronavirus appeared in Brazil in late February, Bolsonaro has frequently obstructed efforts to contain it, demanding local officials abandon severe tactics like shuttering businesses, firing a health minister who pushed for a more aggressive response, and at one point limiting the disclosure of epidemiological data, saying that without the numbers there would “no longer be a story” on the evening news. (The Supreme Court ordered the government to resume releasing the figures.) While in the early weeks of the outbreak Bolsonaro’s intransigence resembled what was happening in the White House, even Trump grudgingly conceded the severity of the situation once the body count started to soar. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has doubled down, insisting that the anti-malarial drug chloroquine is an effective treatment and claiming the number of cases is being exaggerated.

The president’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story. In a written response to questions, Brazil’s Health Ministry said it’s acted aggressively to test patients and add intensive-care beds, protective gear, and ventilators across the country, spending more than 11 billion reais ($2.1 billion) so far.

Most local and state leaders have ignored Bolsonaro’s push to end lockdowns. Brazil has a federal system, and governors have wide powers over public health. But his continued dismissal of the pandemic’s seriousness has undermined distancing measures, while mismanagement and corruption at all levels of government have prevented help from getting to where it’s needed.

The consequences are severe. In Pará, a vast and underdeveloped state that neighbors Maranhão, Covid-19 has been killing about 50 out of every 100,000 citizens, more than double the national average. “I saw people getting to the hospital with family members already dead in the passenger seat, people given CPR on the sidewalks because the hospitals are full,” says Alberto Beltrame, the state health secretary. One day in April, he visited the morgue in the capital, Belém. “There were 120 bodies, scattered everywhere. It’s something you’d see in a war.” As the virus’s spread continues, Brazil may be turning into the true worst-case scenario, a laboratory for what happens when a deadly and little-understood pathogen spreads without much restriction.

Unlike past plagues, the coronavirus has spread in substantial part from the rich to the poor, with prosperous and well-connected global cities—Milan, London, New York—among the earliest hot spots outside China. The story in Brazil was similar. The first clusters emerged in São Paulo, Brazil’s financial capital, in early March as wealthy residents returned from overseas trips.

One of the first so-called superspreader events was the wedding of a social media star, held at a beach-side resort in Bahia state on March 7. A 27-year-old São Paulo lawyer named Pedro Pacífico—an Instagram personality himself, with hundreds of thousands of followers for a feed devoted mainly to literary recommendations—was one of the guests. He felt lousy when he got home, figuring he had an exceptionally bad hangover. When he found out that another guest had been diagnosed with Covid-19, Pacífico went for a test. He had it too—as, he gradually learned, did about 15 of his friends. But at that point, Pacífico says over a video call, the disease seemed more like a nuisance than a threat. He isolated at home, suggesting quarantine reading to his followers and trading virus stories with other well-off paulistanos. “It was the novelty of it,” Pacífico says. “No one saw it coming, or thought it would be so bad.”

On the weekend of the Bahia wedding Bolsonaro was in Florida, visiting Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. The two leaders’ entourages took no real precautions, shaking hands and hugging as usual. The first person to test positive after returning home was Fabio Wajngarten, Bolsonaro’s communications chief. As everyone who deals with him knows, Wajngarten is what Jerry Seinfeld would call a close talker, with a habit of leaning in when he speaks. Five of the eight people who sat at his table at a Mar-a-Lago dinner tested positive, and in all 30 people on the trip got sick. One was Alexandre Fernandes, an athletic 44-year-old who’s developing a grain-export terminal in southern Brazil. After four days isolating in his apartment, Fernandes was so weak he couldn’t walk to the bathroom. He went to the hospital, where he was placed in intensive care. “I couldn’t pull the covers up in bed,” he says. At one point doctors thought he wouldn’t make it: “The nurse had to help me hold the phone so I could Facetime with my daughters to say goodbye.”  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2020 at 10:34 am

Meißner Tremonia Indian Flavour with Myrsol Lemon aftershave

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This shave brings to a close the Meißner Tremonia series — I’ve now gone through all the Meißner Tremonia shaving soaps and pastes I own. Indian Flavour has a very nice fragrance and, like all the MT soaps and pastes, is excellent in the lather department. The Solar Flare from Phoenix Artisan is quite a nice brush, though at 24mm just a tad large — I would prefer 20-22mm.

My Feather AS-D1 with a Feather blade left my face very smooth, and I enjoyed the lemon fragrance of the Myrsol aftershave. I picked this one because we were talking about lemon-fragranced aftershaves and their relative scarcity. I bought this aftershave from GiftsAndCare.com, a Spanish site that carries quite a number of Myrsol aftershaves.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2020 at 8:06 am

Posted in Shaving

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