Redemption Hospital is a government-run facility in Liberia's capital city of Monrovia.
It offers care to all who come, free of charge.
Only now, patients aren't coming. It's rainy season — and malaria season. Head nurse Tita Horace says the hospital usually see 25 patients a day this time of year. Today, there are only five.
The sick are staying away, she explains, because they are afraid. "Some of them are afraid that maybe when they come they will get in contact with [an] Ebola patient. So they don't want to come to the hospital."
The hospital itself is a cluster of one-story cement block rooms connected by open-air passageways. Water stains scar the ceilings. Rust covers metal doors.
Walk into a narrow, dimly lit hallway and the first thing you see is a crib. A tiny boy is curled up inside, his spine curved like a sickle. His mother abandoned him here a year ago. The nurses take turns looking after him.
A few steps further is the pediatric ward, a room with high ceilings, steel cribs and scuffed-up wooden tables where several kids stretch out, their arms hooked up to IV drips. They may have malaria, they may be anemic, a nurse explains.
People are especially afraid of Redemption because a doctor and several nurses on staff became infected with Ebola and died as the outbreak was beginning in Liberia. After that, scores other nurses and staffers stopped coming to work. And the number of new patients slowed to a trickle.
But some people still come. A father is waiting for doctors to check his 12-year-old son. The boy has a fever and hasn't been eating.
The man's neighbors urged him not to bring his son to Redemption. Indeed, there are rumors that the government has made up Ebola to get funds from international donors, and that hospital workers secretly kill patients and then claim they died of Ebola.
But the father didn't listen: "I say no, that ... can't happen."
The man's neighbors suggested he go to a private hospital instead. He said he can't afford that.
Nearby a woman in a T-shirt and a red print skirt watches intently as nurses hover over a girl lying on one of the tables.
"This is your daughter here," they ask.
"Yes, that's my daughter," the woman answers. "She's six years old.
The mother says her daughter has malaria: "She get fever, her skin get hot, she just weak."
But Horace, the head nurse, has just heard otherwise. Someone in he hospital saw the woman at an Ebola treatment center not long ago, crying over the death of a different daughter.
Now Horace can't help but wonder about this girl, "So probably maybe that child might be having, I don't know ... maybe it might be...."
Horace can't bring herself to say the word: Ebola.
And Horace says this kind of thing happens all the time at Redemption. People don't want to admit their child may have Ebola because to them this disease is tantamount to a death sentence. The way they see it, their kid will be taken from them, put in isolation to die. They won't even get the body back.
So other patients, and staff, are at risk. Ebola is spread through direct contact with an infected person's bodily fluids — blood, vomit and stool.
The nurses put on protective gear — white plastic suits, goggles, masks and gloves—to examine the girl. But if she does have Ebola there's a limit to what they can do. This hospital is not equipped to care for patients with this disease.
Yet they keep seeing people who may be infected. The latest case is a man who is now dead. His body lies on a metal cot, in the room next door, just visible through the doorway.
A team of men covered from head to toe in protective suits arrives for the corpse. They lay a plastic tarp on the floor, and heave the body onto it. They wrap it carefully. If this man did have Ebola, the fluids now leaking out of him are extremely infectious.
"It's a scary job that you have?" I ask one of the nurses.
She answers: "Of course! Very scary!"
The heyday of "war tourism" was probably the 1930s, when a host of intellectuals and artists left the U.S. to bear witness to the Spanish Civil War. Ernest Hemingway wrote about it. George Orwell, just to name another, actually fought in it.
Regular people from all walks of life showed up on those fields of battle as well, in much the same way young men — both Muslim and non-Muslim — are streaming to Syria today. The modern day result: Instead of newspaper articles and Homage to Catalonia, there are literally hundreds of Facebook entries that chronicle the fight.
Some, like this one from Army Pvt. Eric Harroun, seem a bit na´ve.
"Bashir al-Assad your days are numbered, you're going down in flames," Harroun posted on his Facebook page last year. "You should just quit now while you can and leave ... you're going to die no matter what ... where ever you go we will find you and kill you."
U.S. intelligence officials tracking American fighters believe that at least 140 of them have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq so far. They say the number of U.S. passport-holders now in the fight has more than doubled since the beginning of the year.
The problem is that officials can't be clear which groups the fighters have joined. Fighting for the group known as the Islamic State, which killed American journalist James Foley last week, is a violation of U.S. law, as it has been designated a terrorist organization. They say there are literally thousands of groups fighting in Syria now, and it is difficult to sort out who is a threat returning from Syria and who isn't.
A Chaotic Situation In Syria
Harroun spent about six weeks fighting with a rebel group linked to the Free Syrian Army, and over that time he provided a visual atlas of his journey by posting a steady stream of videos on Facebook and YouTube.
"I've been separated from my squad, having been hit by shrapnel," Harroun says, looking into a camera phone as he recorded. "I came into this old building and I don't know if that's my last f***ing video or not." He flinches as shots are fired in the background and the building where he is hiding shakes. "We're getting blasted out here, I have one clip, two, three, three full clips left ... my grenade ... so ... f***... Bye."
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, followed the Harroun case as it played out on YouTube.
"Eric Harroun's story in Syria is one of an American concerned about the Middle East who enters the very chaotic situation inside of Syria and gets caught up in a game that is beyond his comprehension," says Tabler. "Unfortunately he was caught on the wrong side of it."
Harroun was on the wrong side because when he returned to the U.S., he was arrested on terrorism charges.
"As a practical matter, it is just a bad idea for U.S. citizens to be fighting," says Neil MacBride, the U.S. attorney in Virginia who lead the Harroun prosecution. "There has yet to be a happy ending from a U.S. citizen going abroad and fighting on the ground in Syria. The Harroun case didn't end well."
'No Idea What He Was Getting Into'
Harroun had been in Egypt during the uprising in Tahrir Square, and expected to see something similar happen in Syria when Syrians started rising up against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Harroun wanted to be a part of it, so he joined forces with the Free Syrian Army, the group that the Obama administration is now considering supporting with more arms and training.
The problem in Syria is that the fighting is so chaotic, and it is hard to tell one group from another. In Harroun's case it was doubly difficult, because he didn't speak Arabic.
"He had no idea what he was getting into," Tabler says.
That's why Harroun's crime ended up being one of proximity. Harroun told investigators and his Facebook followers that he ended up fighting Assad alongside Jabat al-Nusra, al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria. That's why the original charges against him were terrorism related. It turns out, MacBride says, he was fighting with a group allied with al-Nusra. It just took the Justice Department some time to puzzle that out.
MacBride says that's an indication of just how confusing the Syrian battlefield has become.
"It is certainly true that some may have noble and even patriotic reasons for going over there," MacBride says. "But on the ground it has proven to be such a complex and challenging situation, where the groups are so overlapping, with shifting allegiances, that as a practical matter it is a threat to national security to have Americans going abroad and putting themselves in that situation."
U.S. Officials Assume The Worst
Essentially, that means anyone who fights in Syria, regardless of the group that takes them in, is considered suspect now. That goes a long way toward explaining why U.S. law enforcement's approach now appears to be to assume the worst, and why the FBI has started arresting people before they leave for Syria. A handful have been arrested so far this year — nearly all of which have some connection to the Islamic State.
Eventually, U.S. officials decided Harroun wasn't such a threat. After six months in solitary confinement in Alexandria, Va., he was released with time served and charged with illegally providing weapons to a foreign fighting force.
But his story ends badly: Harroun died of an overdose of prescription pills this past April. His family said the death was an accident.
There's been much criticism of the president lately, even within his own party, that he's too detached and withdrawn, not combative enough anymore. This can be explained completely with a sports analogy: We elected a basketball president, but then we ended up with a golf president.
Golf is an internal game. Nobody is playing against you. Nobody is guarding you. Basketball, on the other hand — basketball is in your face, one-on-one, combative to its core. Obama actually had a court built in the White House. And remember all the pictures a few years ago of the president playing hoops, going all out? Why, even after he became the most powerful man in the world, he suffered a split lip in a game that required a dozen stitches.
Basketball is about slashing, dunking, crashing the boards. What is the one basketball term that most delineates the game? "No harm, no foul." Meaning: Challenge the limits, check, poke, use just enough strategic contact. That's how the man got to the White House.
But golf? What do we hear? "It's your honor." "I'm away." "We halved the hole." There's no halving in politics!
What is it about presidents and golf? Since William McKinley took it up in 1897, almost all of them have hit the links. Democrats, Republicans — it doesn't make any difference. Would you ever guess which president played the most? That cerebral college professor, Woodrow Wilson. Scott Berg, in his wonderful biography of Wilson, says it was an absolute ritual with him. Most every day: breakfast, then Woody and the first lady would drive out to the club and get in nine holes. Only then, treaties and vetoes and executive orders and stuff. Not even Ike or Clinton was as golf goofy as Wilson. Not even Obama — yet.
But here's a tip to the White House media office. Never, never again let the president be photographed in a golf cart. What is the wussiest item in all of sports? A golf cart — that electric chaise longue. A movable divan. Could you ever picture Vladimir Putin in a golf cart? You think Angela Merkel poses in a golf cart? In a pig's eye.
I'm telling the president, just stay completely away from golf courses and get back to your basketball court. Bring that ball up yourself, pass it, work that pick and roll, swing to the hoop, and never mind the guy in front of you. Just pretend it's that nerdy Mitch McConnell. Up for two. No harm, no foul. Once again, then: Hail to the chief.
A massive expansion of classroom technology has come to a grinding halt in Los Angeles.
The L.A. Unified School District had planned to buy some 700,000 iPads for its students and teachers. The Apple tablets would include learning software built by publishing giant Pearson. But Superintendent John Deasy announced earlier this week he is cancelling the contract and restarting the bidding process.
The decision comes on the heels of an investigation by member station KPCC, which obtained emails between Deasy and tech executives that bring into question whether the initial bidding process was fair. First, some context...
The goal of the expansion was simple yet ambitious: to equip every student in the nation's second-largest school district with a tablet computer. The expected price tag for equipment, software and wi-fi upgrades to schools: $1.3 billion.
The project has been controversial from the outset. Critics argued that it was too expensive in a time of dramatic budget cuts. Some also worried that the rollout had been rushed, that the software wasn't finished and had glitches, and that the district's infrastructure, training, and security procedures were insufficient for this kind of effort.
Then came the emails.
"Looking forward to further work together for our youth in Los Angeles!" Deasy wrote to Marjorie Scardino, then Pearson's CEO, on Tuesday, May 22, 2012, after hearing an initial pitch over lunch.
"Dear John, It's I who should thank you," Scardino replied. "I really can't wait to work with you."
KPCC reports these notes were going back and forth long before the tech contract was ultimately opened for competitive bidding:
KPCC's investigation found Deasy and his deputies communicated with Pearson employees over pricing, teacher training and technical support — specifications that later resembled the district's request for proposals from vendors. Pearson and Apple emerged as the winning bidders and were awarded the now-abandoned contract in June 2013.
After the emails were published, school board member Steve Zimmer questioned whether the district stifled competition.
"We're dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money. We have to make sure this is completely ethical and above board."
Other key findings from the KPCC investigation:
- Jaime Aquino, the district's former head of curriculum, expressed reservations about the cost, infrastructure readiness, and timing of the iPad/Pearson plan.
- John Deasy personally pitched Apple on the Pearson partnership.
- Pearson's charitable foundation subsidized a training session for 50 LAUSD employees at a poolside resort and gave participants free iPads.
- Pearson's sales representative, Judy Codding, argued against a request for proposals, the key part of a competitive bidding process: "I don't know why there would have to be an RFP."
While the bidding process has been restarted, the district had already bought about 75,000 iPads, roughly half of which were loaded with Pearson's educational software. And, KPCC reports, that software is unfinished and problematic:
A year after the purchase, the software on L.A. Unified iPads still doesn't include many of the simulations, games and interactive tools promised. Officials gave Pearson until November to deliver the finished product.
Also, California education officials have only approved Pearson's math courses for grades Kindergarten through eighth grade. And the state found errors in every grade, from simple problems, like typos, to bigger issues, like learning standards that were not correctly applied.
The digital expansion in L.A. was meant to correspond with California's adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. As KPCC reports, the district Deasy took over needed serious help, and not simply with that Core rollout:
He had inherited a school system in crisis: Thousands of Los Angeles teachers, counselors and librarians had lost their jobs during the recession; fewer than half of students were reading at grade level; more than 10,000 dropped out of high school every year. For Deasy, transformation was not just possible; it was an urgent mandate.
Deasy would not comment for this story. But he told KPCC in May 2012:
"I'm not going to be interested in looking at third-graders and saying, 'Sorry, this is the year you don't learn to read,' or to juniors and saying, 'You don't get to graduate.' So the pace needs to be quick, and we make no apologies for that."
VF Corp. is one of the biggest clothing companies you might not have heard of. But its brands include Lee and Wrangler jeans, Timberland shoes and The North Face, and it also makes uniforms for police and major league sports teams.
It's also a large purchaser of cotton. "We buy roughly 1 percent of the cotton available in the world," says Letitia Webster, VF's senior director of sustainability. Her job is to both reduce the company's greenhouse gas footprint and reduce its risks from climate change.
"Some of the biggest impacts actually come from cotton," Webster says.
Cotton grows commercially in most countries around the world and is very resource-intensive to cultivate and process. On the one hand, agronomists say it's relatively hearty because it grows in hot climates. But its Achilles' heel is water. Cotton needs it for growing and processing, but too much water can also kill it.
Several years ago, bad weather events in China and Pakistan hit VF's cotton supply — and its bottom line. "So we actually do want to diversify; we want to make sure that we are insulated from some of that," Webster says.
VF is training 400 Chinese farmers to switch to new kinds of cotton plants that use less water. And Webster says VF's labs are also developing futuristic alternatives such as fibers grown from bacteria and adhesive fabrics that can repair themselves to improve a garment's longevity.
"I think in the aggregate, it is all about actually reducing risk, which actually does cost," Webster says.
Turning Bottles Into Yarn
One thing the company is doing today is increasing its use of recycled polyester fibers developed by a company called Unifi, which operates just 50 miles from VF's corporate headquarters in Greensboro, N.C.
Unifi rode the 1970s boom in polyester but, like many textile makers, lost business in the 1990s to cheaper international competition.
"We downsized to about 50 percent of what we were, but we were still losing money. So we really had to rethink our strategy," says Roger Berrier, Unifi's president and chief operating officer. "What we decided to do was look to innovation."
Seven years ago, Unifi sought to save itself some money by turning plastic waste like bottles and leftover polyester scraps into yarn. Plastic bottles are washed and chopped up into flakes, which then flow through machines that melt, extrude and spin them into a textured string the company calls Repreve. It closely resembles yarn.
Repreve costs a premium to produce, so for almost a year after development, it sat on the shelves without a buyer. Then things changed. Consumer interest in recycled goods picked up, cotton prices spiked, and companies like VF went looking for alternatives.
Now, Repreve is used in performance athletic gear, fleece jackets and backpacks. Demand is growing 20 percent a year. The Unifi plant has already expanded. Berrier says to secure a supply of used plastic, Unifi now funds campaigns promoting recycling.
"Our goal is to increase the recycling rate. So we have plenty of material available, which should reduce the cost," Berrier says.
Cost is a key issue. A fleece jacket made with Repreve uses no cotton, a lot less water and produces two-thirds less greenhouse gas than one made from unrecycled fabric — but it's also more expensive.
For now, VF is eating that extra cost.
"We can't charge more for the products right now; it has to be just baked in," Webster says.
It's all part of a costly upfront investment the company is making in order to attract consumers to the new alternatives.
Over time, Webster says, the company hopes to bring its massive scale to bear and incorporate cotton substitutes into more products as a way to both reduce the cost of the newer materials and shield VF from climate change risks.