Monthly Archives: March 2014

Rwanda revisited 20 years later.

FAO-RWANDA-church-LOCKE

Ntarama, Rwanda. By Greg Locke © 1995
…click to enlarge

I could say it seems like just last year, but it’s been twenty years this month that the first journalists headed into Rwanda, on news that a mass slaughter of one ethnic group by another was taking place. A civil war turned genocidal and an estimated 800,000 would die in just 100 days in the small central Africa country. The mass killing ended when Paul Kagame’s forces swept in from neighbouring Uganda and took control of the country, but the ongoing conflict carried on across the border in eastern Congo, and continues to this day with various factions and proxy militias.

 

Associated Press photographers  Jean-Marc Bouju and David Guttenfelder relive their time in Rwanda in Revisiting the Rwandan Genocide: Origin Stories From The Associated Press, by Pamela Chen on the National Geographic website.

Bouju’s quote rang true for me and I’d guess everyone who has covered conflict, war and continuous refugee crisis.

 

“What I saw was a vision of hell,” Bouju describes, “A particular hell where you have daily life going on, people shopping, but meanwhile other people are butchering each other right there in the same street. The nonchalance of death was astonishing. And I cannot get that out of my mind. To this day, I don’t understand it. But I left a little bit of my soul there somewhere.” …Jean-Mac Bouju

 

The nonchalance of death is striking. But maybe only to those from the west, where life is supposed to be so precious and sacred, with urban violence only occasionally spilling over into middle and upper class suburbs. One thing for sure, it proved to me that the banality of evil is true. A year later, as I stood among the bones of thousands who died in the little church in Ntarama, Rwanda after a day-long orgy of murder, I could not help but think of the methodical and bureaucratic order of the slaughter. When the killers grew tired of using their machetes they herded everyone inside, and fired rocket propelled grenades into the church. The casualness of how one human being or group can dismiss, objectify, demonize and kill another is frightening and the lesson does not always have to be from a civil war in a far-off developing country.

— Greg Locke

Under a Malaria Moon is Greg Locke’s photo-essay, with field notes, from nearly a decade in Africa. (Subscription required)

 Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves, and is funded by, readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Our original work in Dispatches, Think and Photo-Essays is available for a $1 site day pass or at a modest subscription price. Use the SUBSCRIBE  form, right, to receive our free Frontlines blog and notices of new work.

 

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Food, water, health, livelihoods already hit by climate change: IPCC

The effects of human-caused climate change are already evident on all continents and waters, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said today in a massive report, in the panel’s most plain language yet.

GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK, Alaska. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2009

Alaskan glacier. Deborah Jones © 2009

Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability warned of “pervasive risks” depending on the amount of future climate change — but said opportunities still exist for “effective responses,” albeit challenging ones.

Climate change has already hit agriculture, human health, water and land-based ecosystems, water supplies, and some people’s livelihoods, said the IPCC. It said the effects are evident everywhere on earth “from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest.”

The world is ill-prepared for climate risks, warned the massive report, prepared and reviewed by nearly 2500 experts from 70 countries. It identified risks to people, industries, and ecosystems, from a lack of preparedness and exposure to climate-related hazards. It also said unpredictable surprises are in store for the world.

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Dr Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, Photo credit: IPCC

And the report placed the blame for climate change firmly on humans. “We live in an era of man-made climate change,” said Vicente Barros, Co-Chair of the group that produced the report, in a statement.

Adaptation to date focuses on reacting to past events rather than preparing for a different future, said group co-chair, Chris Field — but suggested the experience gained provides a starting point for more ambitious adaptations.

Field said opportunities exist to adapt economically and socially, if the challenges are understood. “Tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world.”

The IPCC was set up in 1988 to assess the science related to climate change by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. The report was released March 31 by a working group meeting in Yokohama, Japan.

— Deborah Jones

Further reading:
F&O columnist Chris Wood on climate change effects in Canada’s North, The End of the Century is Now (subscription)
F&O’s Expert Witness series republishes Tzeporah Berman’s book excerpt, The Pointy End, on finding hope in the climate campaign (public access)
The March 31, 2014 IPCC press release is here: http://ipcc.ch/pdf/ar5/pr_wg2/140330_pr_wgII_spm_en.pdf
A draft copy of the report summary is here: http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/IPCC_WG2AR5_SPM_Approved.pdf
The video below, provided by the IPCC, is of the news conference announcing the report.

 Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves, and is funded by, readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Our original work in Dispatches, Think and Photo-Essays is available for a $1 site day pass or at a modest subscription price. Use the SUBSCRIBE  form, right, to receive our free Frontlines blog and notices of new work.

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Leave Ukraine to the Russians: Manthorpe

Leave Ukraine to the Russians, says International affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe. Excerpt of the column:

It may have slipped the memory of certain world leaders, but 15 years ago it was decided that the G-8 club of the world’s leading economies was too elite a cabal to be of much practical use. So, with Canada’s then-Finance Minister Paul Martin leading the charge, the G-20 was formed in 1999. The G-20 includes the G-8 countries – the United States, Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Russia – but also includes the major developing economies such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Mexico as well as smaller industrialized countries like Australia. Russian President Vladimir Putin, then, may well feel unperturbed about being expelled from a club everyone agrees has little utility and which often seems ridiculous.

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Posted in All, Current Affairs

Leave Ukraine to the Russians

JONATHAN MANTHORPE
March 28, 2014

It may have slipped the memory of United States President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the 28 European Union leaders, but 15 years ago it was decided that the G-8 club of the world’s leading economies was too elite a cabal to be of much practical use.

So, with Canada’s then-Finance Minister Paul Martin leading the charge, the G-20 was formed in 1999. The G-20 includes the G-8 countries – the United States, Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Russia – but also includes the major developing economies such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Mexico as well as smaller industrialized countries like Australia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, then, may well feel unperturbed about being expelled from a club everyone agrees has little utility and which often seems ridiculous. It is difficult to take seriously pretensions to world leadership from a group which included that priapic buffoon, Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country has had to be put under adult supervision, and President Francois Hollande, whose equally active philandering around night-time Paris has given modern embellishment to the theatrical genre of the French farce.

Putin might even feel relieved he no longer has to spend time in the exclusive company of such people. And, anyway, there is no chance that Obama and company could get a majority of votes to expel Putin from the more significant G-20.

Also, if Putin needs to talk to Europe, there’s only one person who matters; German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is German politics and the German economy that is keeping the whole EU project alive these days, and Merkel and Putin have a special relationship.

It is deeply ironic in the context of the history of the last century or so, but both Putin and Merkel cut their teeth in the old East Germany; Merkel because she spent her childhood there and Putin because that’s where his career as a KGB officer took off. Both speak German and Russian.

It is Merkel who will decide what serious sanctions, if any, Putin faces for easing the Crimea away from Ukraine, and back into the arms of Mother Russia.

As she made clear on Thursday as Harper stood by her side waxing lyrical about the G-8’s embargoes, she is not at all keen on economic sanctions against Moscow.

The reason is simple. German-Russian trade last year totalled about $100 billion and Germany depends on Russia for more than a third of its natural gas supplies. The equation is simple. Russia powers Germany and Germany powers Europe.

It’s a reasonable speculation that Crimea’s shift of sovereignty will not be undone any time soon. Putin has played this game before, and he is very adept at presenting as small a target as possible.

Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia to block Tbilisi’s attempt to regain control of the renegade territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is a template for the Crimea takeover. Despite Georgia’s incipient membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the West did nothing and those two territories are now, in effect, Russian possessions.

The Crimea peninsular has a majority Russian population and was part of Russia until 1954 when, for administrative reasons, then leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Krushchev, who was born in a village on the border between Russia and the Ukraine, incorporated the territory into Ukraine.

While the Ukraine was an indivisible part of the Soviet empire, that administrative shift was of no significance. It only became so in July 1990 when the parliament in Kiev declared its independence from Moscow.

Nearly a quarter of a century later the country is still being torn between its European-looking west, and its Russia-focused and substantially ethnic Russian east.

The question now is whether Putin will by guile or force try to also take control of the Russian portions of eastern Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s ousted president who is in exile in Russia, today advocated holding more regional referendums like that which resulted in the Crimea opting to join Russia.

Putin may be content to let his guest stir the pot of Ukrainian affairs from time to time and keep the region off balance. Such moves from Moscow are likely to get more intense if serious signs emerge of Ukraine joining the EU or NATO.

There is more passion than sense in the ideological drive within the EU to gobble up as much of the old Soviet eastern European satellite countries as possible. Eleven of these countries have joined the EU since 2000, and some are proving highly problematic. The European Commission, the EU’s bureaucracy, has become alarmed that there are powerful signs of democratic backsliding in several of these old Soviet bloc countries that threaten to taint the whole organization.

It would be more of a problem to absorb Ukraine into the EU than any other of the new entrants. East Germany, remember, was reunited with the West Germany in 1990. But despite the East having the most developed economy of all the Soviet European satellites, and despite West Germany’s lavish investment, it cannot be argued that, 24 years later, integration is complete.

By comparison, Ukraine is a basket case. Agriculture dominates the economy in the west of Ukraine, but it amounts to little more than subsistence farming and would require vast investment to become viable.

The same is true for the industrial and mining industries in the east. They are relics of the Soviet Union and unhappy reminders of why it could not sustain an economy that would allow it to survive.

Ousted President Yanukovich reckoned that Ukraine needs an injection of $220.5 billion over the next eight years in order to pay for the reforms needed to qualify for EU membership. No one seriously quarrels with that figure, and one of the sparks for the crisis of the last few weeks was when the EU offered only the paltry sum of $1 billion.

The International Monetary Fund today improved on that with an offer of a loan of up to $18 billion, with the EU, the U.S. and Japan kicking in more money to bring the total up to $27 billion.

But the IMF money comes with bitter conditions about cutting subsidies on staple goods and opening up the economy. These conditions will undoubtedly prompt a popular backlash against the interim government and tax its political legitimacy, which is already very limited.

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, freed last month from prison after a 2009 conviction for abuse of power, said on Thursday she intends to run for the presidency in elections scheduled for May 25 on a pledge to unite Ukraine.

But she is a divisive and mercurial figure. If she returns to the political centre stage it will be a warning of yet more tempestuous seas ahead.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Journalists collateral damage in Middle East rivalries

Detained journalists on trial, regional rivalries and allegations of terrorism are roiling the Middle East. International affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe  explains in a new column. Excerpt:

Qatar_rel95A bitter feud among Arab states over relations with radical Islamic groups and how to confront regional rival Iran is threatening to bring new volatility to the already raging insecurity in the Middle East.

The feud pits the oil-rich emirate of Qatar against Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States of the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. At the heart of the rift is the financial and moral support by Qatar for militant Islamic groups in North Africa, Egypt and rebels fighting the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria, some of which are linked to Al Qaida and other jihadist groups.

Of special concern is Qatar’s vocal and financial support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a network of radical Islamic followers throughout the Middle East and North Africa and which has been declared a terrorist organization in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

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New rift among Arab states adds to Middle East security threat

JONATHAN MANTHORPE
March 26, 2014

A bitter feud among Arab states over relations with radical Islamic groups and how to confront regional rival Iran is threatening to bring new volatility to the already raging insecurity in the Middle East.

Qatar_rel95The feud pits the oil-rich emirate of Qatar against Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States of the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. At the heart of the rift is the financial and moral support by Qatar for militant Islamic groups in North Africa, Egypt and rebels fighting the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria, some of which are linked to Al Qaida and other jihadist groups.

Of special concern is Qatar’s vocal and financial support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a network of radical Islamic followers throughout the Middle East and North Africa and which has been declared a terrorist organization in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Another irritant is the Arabic news network Al Jazeera, which is financed by the Qatari government of Emir Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani, and which the other governments accuse of unfairly criticising their own administrations while slanting news reports in favour of radical Islamic groups.

Thus the three Al Jazeera journalists, Australian Peter Greste, Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, and local Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed, who are on trial in Egypt on charges of “spreading false news” and aiding terrorists, are collateral damage in this broader dispute. The trial of the three is to resume next week.

The military-backed government in Cairo makes a more general accusation against Al Jazeera, saying it supports the Muslim Brotherhood of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the army last July.

Indeed, the Qatari government in Doha has given refuge to Muslim Brotherhood leaders who fled Egypt after the coup. One, Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who also has Qatari citizenship, has been allowed by Doha to make inflammatory public statements against Saudi Arabia and the governments of the United Arab Emirates.

Further fuel was thrown on the fire of the dispute this week when an Egyptian court sentenced 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death for their actions during protests last August following the army’s ouster of Morsi and his brotherhood-backed government.

The roots of the dispute go back to the early 1990s when increasingly wealthy Qatar started to assert its own foreign policies. Doha tried to shrug off the regional domination of Saudi Arabia, with its insistence on giving paternal guidance to the small neighbouring states.

There were border skirmishes between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 1992 and 1993 when Riyadh attempted to install an emir in Doha it thought would be more supportive of its regional leadership.

That didn’t work and in 2002 Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Doha in protest at Al Jazeera’s reports of domestic Saudi politics. Diplomatic relations were not fully restored until 2007 after Qatar agreed to moderate the network’s coverage.

But the friction re-ignited three years ago as the wave of pro-reform rebellions known as the Arab Spring swept across the region.

The Saudi Arabian and Gulf State governments believed that Qatar’s support for radicals endangered the security of the region, and attempted to rein in the Doha regime through a joint security accord agreed last November under the auspices of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

But on March 3, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain decided Qatar was in breach of the November pact because of its continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Two days later the three took the dramatic step of withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha.

They have followed up by demanding that their nationals who work for Al Jazeera resign from their posts. The three have stopped their sports teams from taking part in events in Qatar, and their government officials have refused to attend some meetings in Doha. Shops on the Saudi side of the border have stopped accepting Qatari currency, which they used to take at par with the Saudi riyal.

These actions have only increased the tensions within the region and efforts by Kuwait and Oman, working through recent meetings of the Gulf Co-operation Council and the summit of the Arab League in Kuwait this week, appear to have got nowhere.

Saudi Arabia is holding out the threat of further sanctions unless Qatar shows real commitment to joint regional security, including closing down the Al Jazeera news network.

There are reports that at a meeting of Gulf Co-operation Council foreign ministers in Riyadh earlier this month the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faysal threatened to close the border with Qatar unless the Doha government falls into line. Qatar, with its limited channels to the outside world, is vulnerable to economic sanctions like this, and the damage could be even more serious if Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates follow Saudi Arabia’s lead.

Sanctions by its neighbours could disrupt Qatar’s preparations to host the World Cup of soccer in 2022. Extreme embargoes, such as the closing of national airspace to Qatar Airways, would be severely disruptive, especially for flights to Europe and Africa.

The Qatar issue is going to be top of the agenda for United States President Barack Obama when he visits Saudi Arabia on March 28. But there is little expectation that he can succeed in healing the rift when the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council have, so far, failed.

Indeed, there is a strong strain of thought in the region that Riyadh is so incensed at the insolence of the upstart Qatari emir that it is merely waiting for the Obama visit to be over before increasing the pressure on Doha.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Further reading:
Reporters Without Borders Egypt page

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Privacy Tools: Mask Your Location

 

by Julia Angwin, ProPublica

In the course of writing my book, Dragnet Nation, I tried various strategies to protect my privacy. In this series of book excerpts and adaptations, I distill the lessons from my privacy experiments into tips for readers.

“Where R U?” There’s a reason that is among the most common text messages of the modern age.

Location is one of the most revealing pieces of information about us. In 2013, researchers found that four instances of a person’s location at a given point in time were enough to uniquely identify 95 percent of the individuals they examined. “Human mobility traces are highly unique,” the researchers wrote. “Mobility data is among the most sensitive data currently being collected.”

Location is also predictive. In another study, researchers at Microsoft were able to use location data to predict where people would be in the future. Wednesdays were the easiest to predict, and weekends the hardest. “While your location in the distant future is in general highly independent of your recent location,” the researchers wrote, “it is likely to be a good predictor of your location exactly one week from now.”

To mask my location I took several steps:

1) When browsing the Web, I tried to use the Tor Browser as often as possible. Tor anonymizes the location 2014 known as the IP Address 2014 that you computer transmits automatically to every website you visit. It’s amazing to see how revealing your IP address can be 2014 this site pinpoints my location exactly.

Tor bounces your Internet traffic around the world so that your computer’s location is masked. However, because your traffic is bouncing around the world, using Tor can slow down your Web browsing. Click the Tor button on this graphic to see how Tor protects your location from potential eavesdroppers.

2) Masking my location when using my cellphone was more difficult. I turned off 2018location services’ for my apps. And I tried to opt out from companies that track cellphone users via the Wi-Fi signal emitted by their phone.

I identified 58 companies that appeared to be in the mobile location tracking business 2014 ranging from advertisers to wireless carriers. Of those, only 11 offered opt-outs 2014 which I attempted to complete. Here is the chart of the folks I found that offered opt outs.

DataXu Advertising Link Link Cookie
Drawbridge Advertising Link Link Cookie
Sense Networks Advertising Link Link Device ID
Euclid Analytics Analytics Link Link MAC address
Flurry Analytics Link Link Device ID and UDID
Mixpanel Analytics Link Link Cookie
Nomi Analytics Link Link MAC address
AT&T Wireless Link Link via your AT&T account
Sprint Wireless Link Link Via your Sprint account
Verizon Wirless Wireless Link Link via your Verizon account
T-Mobile Wireless Link Link Cookie

 

The Future of Privacy Forum has also built a location opt-out site, which as of today, offers opt-outs from 11 location tracking companies.

Ultimately, I decided that turning off my Wi-Fi signal was a more effective opt-out.

3) When I really do not want my location to be tracked, I throw my phone into a Faraday cage 2014 a bag that blocks it from transmitting signals to Wi-Fi or the cellphone tower. I use this one from OffPocket, but any Faraday cage will do.

Of course, this also means that I can’t use my phone. So, like most of my privacy fixes, it is a highly imperfect solution.

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Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves, and is funded by, readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Our original work in Dispatches, Think and Photo-Essays is available for a $1 site day pass or at a modest subscription price. Use the SUBSCRIBE  form, right, to receive our free Frontlines blog and notices of new work.


Posted in Gyroscope

Dirty air kills twice as many as previously thought: WHO

Air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk, prematurely killing some seven million people in 2012 alone, said the World Health Organization.

People die prematurely of pollution-linked strokes, ischaemic heart disease, cancer, respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), said WHO in estimates released in Geneva on March 25.

WHO

A woman cooks over an open fire in her kitchen in India. Smoke from such fires causes millions of deaths annually, said the World Health Organization. © WHO/TDR /Andy Crump 2001

The organization’s new estimates are double the numbers of people previously suspected killed by dirty air, both indoor and outdoor, and WHO announced a  program to better track information and advise and inform countries of health gains from reducing pollution.

The problem is global. In France this month an environmental agency, Ecologie Sans Frontiere, filed a criminal complaint of “endangering others” over the recent extreme smog in Paris. On Monday the European Union’s environmental agency announced that 11 EU countries exceed pollution limits. China, especially affected by thick smog, has begun using drones to inspect polluting factories, said the state-run news outlet China Daily.

WHO said the countries most affected by air pollution are in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific Regions where, said WHO’s Dr. Flavia Bustreo in a statement, “Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves.”

The causes of indoor pollution are mostly cooking over coal, wood and biomass (dung) stoves — and they especially affect women and children, said WHO. In a WHO feature accompanying the report it quoted Dr Kirk Smith of the University of California at Berkeley, an expert in pollution from biomass stoves: “Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour.”

Outdoors, WHO laid the blame for pollution on transport, energy, waste management and industry.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, in the WHO statement. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

The WHO report said ischaemic heart disease and stroke kill the greatest numbers of people, with COPD a close third.

Copyright Deborah Jones 2014

 Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves, and is funded by, readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Our original work in Dispatches, Think and Photo-Essays is available for a $1 site day pass or at a modest subscription price. Use the SUBSCRIBE  form, right, to receive our free Frontlines stories and notices of new work.

 

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Stillbirth and the American justice system

What tales would Charles Dickens have fashioned about the enduring miseries in the 21st Century? What might he have made of documented cases of hundreds of American women detained, arrested or convicted for things authorities viewed as harmful to their unborn children? They include:

  • An Indiana woman who attempted suicide while pregnant spent a year in jail before murder charges were dropped.
  • An Iowa woman was arrested and jailed after falling down the stairs and suffering a miscarriage.
  • A New Jersey woman who refused to sign a preauthorization for a cesarean section didn’t end up needing the operation, yet was charged with child endangerment and lost custody of her baby.
  • Women suspected of using illegal drugs.

Nina Martin of ProPublica has been following this and related issues. An excerpt of her latest story, A Stillborn Child and a Charge of Murder:

Rennie Gibbs’s daughter, Samiya, was a month premature when she simultaneously entered the world and left it, never taking a breath. To experts who later examined the medical record, the stillborn infant’s most likely cause of death was also the most obvious: the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. But within days of Samiya’s delivery in November 2006, Steven Hayne, the American state of Mississippi’s de facto medical examiner at the time, came to a different conclusion. Autopsy tests had turned up traces of a cocaine byproduct in Samiya’s blood, and Hayne declared her death a homicide, caused by “cocaine toxicity.”

The story, which like all ProPublica work is not behind our paywall, is part of F&O’s Justice section.

Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves, and is funded by, readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Our original work in Dispatches, Think and Photo-Essays is available for a $1 site day pass or at a modest subscription price. Use the SUBSCRIBE  form, right, to receive our free Frontlines stories and notices of new work.

Posted in All, Current Affairs, Gyroscope

Canada’s health care takes a hit

Canadians tend to smugness about the country’s health care, but new research suggests private insurers rake in billions more than they pay in benefits. And a study published today, which examined 20 years of records, revealed that Canadians pay far more for less benefits from private insurance than do Americans.

The Canadian public model stars often in battles over so-called “Obamacare” health care in America’s right-left culture war. Canada’s system is lauded at home and cited constantly in the United States as a better model — although World Health Organization research shows that neither system ranks among the world’s least-costly and most-effective.

But when it comes to private insurance — which covers 60 per cent of Canadians for prescription drugs and dental and eye care —  researchers say Canadians pay more than Americans, and Canadian regulations lag those of the United States. For example in 2011, states the analysis in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Canadians paid $6.8 billion more in premiums than they received in benefits.

The study contends:

  • Private insurance companies play a substantial role in financing particular health care services in Canada, such as prescription drugs.
  • The percentage of private health insurance premiums paid out as benefits has decreased markedly over the past 20 years, leading to a gap between premiums collected and benefits paid of $6.8 billion in 2011.
  • Governments across Canada should regulate the private health insurance industry more effectively to provide greater transparency and better value for Canadians.

“Although most health care in Canada is paid for by the public, private health insurance plays a major supporting role,” said researchers at the universities of British Columbia and Toronto. In 2010, for example, private insurance expenditures were 11.7 per cent of total health care spending, placing Canada second among nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in terms of per capita private health insurance expenditures.

“Small businesses and individual entrepreneurs are the hardest hit – they end up paying far more for private health coverage,” said study lead author Michael Law of the University of British Columbia, in a press release. “It’s essentially an extra health tax on one of our main economic drivers.”

Early reaction from the private health insurance industry protested that the study does not account for all factors, and one organization told CBC the study is “misleading.

The study is available online at the CMAJ site (for journal subscribers, or for a fee of $25 per article). A press release from the University of British Columbia provides a summary.

— Deborah Jones

Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O serves, and is funded by, readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Our original work in Dispatches, Think and Photo-Essays is available for a $1 site day pass or at a modest subscription price. Use the SUBSCRIBE  form, right, to receive our free Frontlines blog and notices of new work.

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