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News Brief: Pandemic Anniversary, Border Crossings, Cuomo Allegations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On March 11, 2020, a string of events clarified the severity of the COVID-19 situation for many Americans.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, said they were sick with the virus. The NBA suddenly shut down after a player got COVID-19 and the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.

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TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: We expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher.

DETROW: That was the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. That day, he said he was worried about what he called alarming levels of inaction from many governments around the world.

MARTIN: So here we are one year later. NPR's Jason Beaubien covered that very press conference back in 2020, and he is with us this morning. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hello.

MARTIN: Remind us what the situation looked like around the world exactly one year ago.

BEAUBIEN: You know, it had become abundantly clear to anyone who follows infectious disease at that point that this was going to be a train wreck. It was going to be a big disaster. But you also need to remember that for a lot of people, this was some distant flu that was kicking around in a place called Wuhan. And now all of a sudden, it was being declared a global pandemic, you know, and also at this point, most of the cases were still in China. The U.S. hadn't even hit 700 cases. But the genie was out of the bottle at that point. And the world was heading towards a health crisis on a scale that no one had seen in their lifetimes.

MARTIN: So let's think back to how the WHO handled it. I mean, what were the first steps?

BEAUBIEN: So, you know, at that point, you know, I was talking to a lot of people at the WHO, and they were pretty much convinced that this virus could be contained. They knew how to isolate clusters of cases. They knew how to stop transmission. The problem was, particularly in places where there still were very low levels of cases, governments weren't doing much to prepare for this. Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of emergencies for the WHO, he was incredibly frustrated last March by the lack of preparation that he was seeing in capitals in many parts of the world.

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MIKE RYAN: As I've said many times in the past, hope is not a strategy. And therefore, when we look at this as being realistic, we're still very much in the up cycle of this epidemic.

BEAUBIEN: And indeed, it continued to go up. You know, part of the conundrum for the WHO is that they don't have the power to force anyone to do anything.

MARTIN: Right.

BEAUBIEN: They offer advice. They gather data. They try to shout from their bully pulpit to encourage governments to take action. That's what they do.

MARTIN: So it's really about nation-states and what measures they were going to put in place. But it doesn't change the fact that critics accuse the WHO of being too deferential to China, right?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, that's true. But look, you know, the WHO, like everyone during this pandemic, they did make mistakes. You know, they initially opposed mask mandates and then they reversed course on that. But consistently, they did urge countries to set up testing systems, track cases, boost infection control measures. And, you know, some countries did it better than others; some didn't really do it at all. You know, just this week, Dr. Mike Ryan, he was asked, you know, if the WHO should have done more.

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RYAN: We have to ask ourselves, yes, maybe we need to shout louder, but maybe some people need hearing aids.

BEAUBIEN: And in a way, he has a point. You know, places that listened to the warnings from scientists, like New Zealand, Hong Kong, Vietnam, they fared far better and other places, particularly the U.S. and Brazil, weren't as willing to listen, and it cost them dearly.

MARTIN: This has been a devastating year for so many people. I mean, Jason, this is your beat. You cover pandemics and disease, public health around the world. How do we begin to think about the toll this pandemic has wrought?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it's hard even to get your head around it. You know, at least 2.6 million people dead worldwide. COVID is now the leading killer in the U.S. You know, economically, it's been huge. People have been pushed into poverty. Women have been pulled out of the workforce. You know the impacts, you know, they've been varied, and they've been really huge.

MARTIN: NPR global health and development correspondent Jason Beaubien. Jason, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. When the Biden administration rolled back some of the strict immigration rules put in place under former President Trump, their message to migrants was don't come yet. We don't have the capacity to process your cases. Many people, though, didn't listen.

DETROW: Now thousands of minors have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. They're mostly teenagers without parents or guardians. They're part of an increase in unauthorized border crossings, the most since 2019 when the Trump administration declared a security and humanitarian crisis.

MARTIN: NPR's John Burnett is with us this morning. John, thanks for being here.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the administration put out some new numbers on unauthorized border crossings yesterday. What do they show?

BURNETT: Well, it's news the administration didn't want to hear. The numbers of migrants coming across the southwest border continues to grow. It's a trend that began a year ago, but it's picked up under the Biden administration. The Border Patrol encountered more than a hundred thousand people last month. That's nearly a 30% jump over January. And it's almost triple the numbers from a year ago when former President Trump had all but locked down the border. And some of the increase is explainable by all the single adults who try to get in again and again. Under COVID health rules, they get caught, they're quickly expelled. They turn right around and try again. But those immigrant kids, mostly teenagers, are what really worries Customs and Border Protection.

MARTIN: Yeah. Tell us about those teenagers. What do we know?

BURNETT: Well, it's the fastest growing group of border crossers. The agents are apprehending nearly 350 of them a day. That number has grown 80% over the last month. And it's a familiar bottleneck we've seen before. According to my sources, Border Patrol is holding about 3,000 children in these barebones cells meant for adults. These are the same infamous cages that Trump was castigated for. And they're holding some of them well past the court-ordered limit of three days for children in detention. Once again, they're stuck in Border Patrol stations because there's not enough room in the child shelters run by HHS, Health and Human Services. The new acting CBP commissioner is Troy Miller, and he said yesterday his agency is struggling with all the kids in custody.

TROY MILLER: As far as HHS, you know, we continue to work with them to move children out of our custody as quickly as we can. And, you know, we need to move more quicker.

MARTIN: I mean, this kind of increase in crossings at the border has happened before when policy changes, right? I mean, couldn't the Biden administration have predicted that this was going to happen and then been better prepared?

BURNETT: Yeah, that's a great question, Rachel, because, you know, it happened under Obama. It happened under Trump, and now it's happening again under Biden. The whole child shelter network run by HHS was unprepared. Today, there's only one emergency influx facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, and it's days away from filling up. The government is scrambling to open up more space at shelters around the country, and it's having to scrap the COVID rules that it put in place that would lower the capacity of those shelters. And now they'll just fill them up. What happens then is the shelters try to discharge the children as quickly and safely as possible so they can go live with a relative and then pursue their asylum case in U.S. court. But the thing is, all these young migrants has fed criticism by conservatives that Biden has just opened the gates and brought on a humanitarian crisis. To that critique, Biden's people keep having press conferences to discourage irregular border crossings, but the migrants keep coming.

MARTIN: NPR's John Burnett. Thanks, John.

BURNETT: You bet, Rachel.

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MARTIN: More allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are coming to light.

DETROW: The list of women who say the governor behaved inappropriately toward them has now grown to six - five women he worked with and one he met at a wedding. Last night, the Albany Times Union published another serious allegation.

MARTIN: Gwynne Hogan from member station WNYC has been following this story, and she joins us now. Thanks for being here, Gwynne. Can you tell us about these latest allegations?

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Yeah. So last night, more details emerged in reporting from the Times Union about this sixth woman. She is a current staffer and the alleged incident occurred late last year. Now, according to their report, she told her supervisor she was summoned to the governor's mansion, ostensibly to help him with minor technical issues with his phone. And according to this report, Cuomo then proceeded to aggressively grope her under her blouse. Now, this is the most severe allegation against the governor so far. And the publication is not naming the woman. In response to this latest report, Cuomo's office has - insists that he's never done anything like this.

MARTIN: So now, as we noted, the number of women who have accused the governor has grown to six. Why is all this coming up now?

HOGAN: Well, Cuomo, you know, he developed a national profile at the height of the pandemic last year for his briefings. But here in New York, he's had a long-established reputation for hardball politics. And many people were afraid to speak out against him. But he had been facing mounting scrutiny for deliberately obscuring the full tally of nursing home deaths caused by COVID. Then assembly member Ron Kim, who is a Democrat from Queens, rant (ph) to reporters last month describing a bullying phone call he got from the governor threatening to destroy him. And almost overnight, that fear of speaking out sort of dissipated. Since then, a barrage of similar stories have emerged about aggressive phone calls from Cuomo and his top aides. And when that shift happened, Lindsey Boylan says she felt emboldened to speak publicly about the sexual harassment she says she experienced while working for Cuomo. And she was the first woman to step forward about two weeks ago.

MARTIN: So you've been talking to another one of the women about alleged inappropriate conduct by Cuomo. Her name is Ana Liss. Can you tell us about her?

HOGAN: Sure. Ana worked for a Cuomo for two years up until 2015. And she says a staffer told her Cuomo liked blondes, that she should wear heels when he was in the office. Cuomo would kiss her on the cheek regularly and often commented on her appearance, asked personal questions like if she had a boyfriend. Now, she wasn't as explicitly propositioned as some of the other women. But she says she now feels like it's part of a pattern.

ANA LISS: I feel like what happened to me was on a slippery slope. I remember reading it and I was like, thank God I wasn't higher up. Thank God I wasn't around him alone by myself. Thank God he didn't take me seriously.

MARTIN: So now Cuomo is facing all these calls for him to resign, right? Notably, the head of the New York State Senate, Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, has joined this chorus. What's the governor saying?

HOGAN: Well, up until at least yesterday, Cuomo had really brushed off those calls. He says leaving his post would be anti-democratic since voters elected him to serve a four-year term. And he says allegations are just that, allegations. But at some point, Rachel, the combined weight of all these accounts may make his political future untenable.

MARTIN: Gwynne Hogan from member station WNYC, we appreciate you bringing your reporting to us.

HOGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.