Science & Health

US Overdose Deaths Jumped for Blacks, Native Americans During Pandemic

Overdose deaths increased 44% for Blacks and 39% for Native Americans in 2020 compared with 2019, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted access to care and exacerbated racial inequality, an official report showed Tuesday.

“Racism, a root cause of health disparities, continues to be a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry said in a briefing.

“The disproportionate increase in overdose death rates among Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native people may partly be due to health inequities, like unequal access to substance use treatment and treatment biases.”

Recent increases in deaths were largely driven by illegally manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, according to the report from the CDC.

Before the pandemic, the overdose death rate was similar for Black, Native and white people, at 27, 26 and 25 per 100,000 people in 2019.

But that changed dramatically in 2020, when the respective figures were 39, 36 and 31 per 100,000 people.

Though the increase among white people was not as great as for Blacks and Native Americans, the new rate is still a historic high.

Among key findings: The overdose death rate among Black males 65 years and older was nearly seven times that of their white counterparts.

Black people 15-24 years old experienced the largest rate increase, 86%, compared with changes seen in other groups.

“There was a substantially lower percentage of people in racial and ethnic minority groups showing evidence of ever receiving treatment for substance use, compared to white people,” CDC health scientist Mbabazi Kariisa said during the briefing.

In fact, most people who died by overdose had no evidence of getting prior substance use treatment before their death.

Areas with a wider income gap between rich and poor had the highest death rates.

Being impoverished “can lead to lack of stable housing, reliable transportation and health insurance, making it even more difficult for people to access treatment and other support services,” Kariisa said.

In terms of recommendations, Houry said it was vital to raise awareness about the lethality of the illicit drug supply, particularly fentanyl, and encourage people to carry the life-saving treatment Naloxone.

Improving access to treatment and offering structural support, such as transport assistance and child care, can improve care access.

“Combining culturally appropriate traditional practices, spirituality and religion with evidence-based substance use disorder treatment also helps raise awareness and reduce stigma,” she said.

“While we have made so much progress in treating substance use disorders as chronic conditions, rather than moral failings, there is still so much more work to do, including making sure that all people who need these services can get them,” Houry concluded.

Science & Health

Judge Sets October Trial For Musk-Twitter Takeover Dispute

Elon Musk lost a fight to delay Twitter’s lawsuit against him as a Delaware judge on Tuesday set an October trial, citing the “cloud of uncertainty” over the social media company after the billionaire backed out of a deal to buy it.

“Delay threatens irreparable harm,” said Chancellor Kathaleen St. Jude McCormick, the head judge of Delaware’s Court of Chancery, which handles many high-profile business disputes. “The longer the delay, the greater the risk.”

Twitter had asked for an expedited trial in September, while Musk’s team called for waiting until early next year because of the complexity of the case. McCormick said Musk’s team underestimated the Delaware court’s ability to “quickly process complex litigation.”

Twitter is trying to force the billionaire to make good on his April promise to buy the social media giant for $44 billion — and the company wants it to happen quickly because it says the ongoing dispute is harming its business.

Musk, the world’s richest man, pledged to pay $54.20 a share for Twitter, but now wants to back out of the agreement.

“It’s attempted sabotage. He’s doing his best to run Twitter down,” said attorney William Savitt, representing Twitter in Delaware’s Court of Chancery before the court’s Chancellor Kathaleen St. Jude McCormick. The hearing was held virtually after McCormick said she tested positive for COVID-19.

Musk has claimed the company has failed to provide adequate information about the number of fake, or “spam bot,” Twitter accounts, and that it has breached its obligations under the deal by firing top managers and laying off a significant number of employees.

But the idea the Tesla CEO is trying to damage Twitter is “preposterous. He has no interest in damaging the company,” said Musk’s attorney Andrew Rossman, noting he is Twitter’s second largest shareholder with a far larger stake than the entire board.

Savitt emphasized the importance of an expedited trial starting in September for Twitter to be able to make important business decisions affecting everything from employee retention to relationships with suppliers and customers.

Rossman said more time is needed because it is “one of the largest take-private deals in history” involving a “company that has a massive amount of data that has to be analyzed. Billions of actions on their platform have to be analyzed.”

Science & Health

US Abortion Rights Reversal to Impact Africa, Campaigners Worry  

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning the right to abortion has raised concerns among activists about a domino effect in developing countries, including in Africa. In Kenya, anti-abortion groups have welcomed the ruling while abortion rights supporters fear it could further restrict the reproductive health of girls and women. Juma Majanga reports from Nairobi. Camera: Jimmy Makhulo  

Arts & Entertainment/Economy & business

Artist Claes Oldenburg, Maker of Huge Urban Sculptures, Dies

Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, who turned the mundane into the monumental through his outsized sculptures of a baseball bat, a clothespin and other objects, has died at age 93. 

Oldenburg died Monday morning in Manhattan, according to his daughter, Maartje Oldenburg. He had been in poor health since falling and breaking his hip a month ago. 

The Swedish-born Oldenburg drew on the sculptor’s eternal interest in form, the dadaist’s breakthrough notion of bringing readymade objects into the realm of art, and the pop artist’s ironic, outlaw fascination with lowbrow culture — by reimagining ordinary items in fantastic contexts. 

“I want your senses to become very keen to their surroundings,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1963. 

“When I am served a plate of food, I see shapes and forms, and I sometimes don’t know whether to eat the food or look at it,” he said. In May 2009, a 1976 Oldenburg sculpture, “Typewriter Eraser,” sold for a record $2.2 million at an auction of postwar and contemporary art in New York. 

Early in his career, he was a key developer of “soft sculpture” made out of vinyl — another way of transforming ordinary objects — and also helped invent the quintessential 1960s art event, the “Happening.” 

Among his most famous large sculptures are “Clothespin,” a 45-foot steel clothespin installed near Philadelphia’s City Hall in 1976, and “Batcolumn,” a 100-foot lattice-work steel baseball bat installed the following year in front of a federal office building in Chicago. 

“It’s always a matter of interpretation, but I tend to look at all my works as being completely pure,” Oldenburg told the Chicago Tribune in 1977, shortly before “Batcolumn” was dedicated. “That’s the adventure of it: to take an object that’s highly impure and see it as pure. That’s the fun.” 

The placement of those sculptures showed how his monument-sized items — though still provoking much controversy — took their place in front of public and corporate buildings as the establishment ironically championed the once-outsider art. 

Many of Oldenburg’s later works were produced in collaboration with his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen, a Dutch-born art historian, artist and critic whom he married in 1977. The previous year, she had helped him install his 41-foot “Trowel I” on the grounds of the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands. 

Van Bruggen died in January 2009. 

Oldenburg’s first wife, Pat, also an artist, helped him out during their marriage in the 1960s, doing the sewing on his soft sculptures. 

Oldenburg’s first blaze of publicity came in the early ’60s, when a type of performance art called the “Happening” began to crop up in the artier precincts of Manhattan. 

A 1962 New York Times article described it as “a far-out entertainment more sophisticated than the twist, more psychological than a séance and twice as exasperating as a game of charades.” 

One Oldenburg concoction, cited in the 1965 book “Happenings” by Michael Kirby, juxtaposed a man in flippers soundlessly reciting Shakespeare, a trombonist playing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” a young woman laden with tools climbing a ladder, a man shoveling sand from a cot and other oddities, all in one six-minute segment. 

“There is no story and the events are seemingly meaningless,” Oldenburg told the Times. “But there is a disorganized pattern that acquires definition during a performance.” He said the sessions — unscripted but loosely planned in advance — should be a “cathartic experience for us as well as the audience.” 

Oldenburg’s sculpture was also becoming known during this period, particularly ones in which objects such as a telephone or electric mixer were rendered in soft, pliable vinyl. “The telephone is a very sexy shape,” Oldenburg told the Los Angeles Times. 

One of his early large-scale works was “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks,” which juxtaposed a large lipstick on tracks resembling those that propel Army tanks. The original — with its undertone suggestion to “make love (lipstick) not war (tanks)” — was commissioned by students and faculty and installed at Yale University in 1969. 

The original version deteriorated and was replaced by a steel, aluminum and fiberglass version in another spot on the Yale campus in 1974. 

Oldenburg’s 45-foot steel “Clothespin” was installed in 1976 outside Philadelphia’s City Hall. It evokes Constantin Brancusi’s 1908 “The Kiss,” a semi-abstract depiction of a nearly identical man and woman embracing eyeball to eyeball. “Clothespin” resembles the ordinary household object, but its two halves face each other in the same way as Brancusi’s lovers. 

The Chicago “Batcolumn” was funded by the federal government as part of a program to include a budget for artworks whenever a big federal building was put up. It took its place not far from Chicago’s famed Picasso sculpture, dedicated in 1967. 

“Batcolumn,” Oldenburg told the Tribune, “attempts to be as nondecorative as possible — straightforward, structural and direct. This, I think, is also a part of Chicago: a very factual and realistic object. The final thing, though, was to have it against the sky, that’s what it was made for.” 

He had considered making it red, but “color would have simply distracted from the linear effect. Now, the more buildings they tear down around here, the better it will get.” 

Chicagoans weren’t uniformly pleased. At around the same time as the Tribune interview, another Tribune writer, architecture critic Paul Gapp, decried the trend toward “idiotic public sculpture” and called Oldenburg “a veteran put-on man and poseur who long ago convinced the Art Establishment that he was to be taken seriously.” 

Among Oldenburg’s other monumental projects: “Crusoe Umbrella,” for the Civic Center in Des Moines, Iowa, completed in 1979; “Flashlight,” 1981, University of Las Vegas; and “Tumbling Tacks,” Oslo, 2009. 

Oldenburg was born in 1929 in Stockholm, Sweden, son of a diplomat. But young Claes (pronounced klahs) spent much of his childhood in Chicago, where his father served as Swedish consul general for many years. Oldenburg eventually became a U.S. citizen. 

As a young man, he studied at Yale and the Art Institute of Chicago and worked for a time at Chicago’s City News Bureau. He settled in New York by the late 1950s, but at times had also lived in France and California.