These days, it’s hard to stop news from Washington, D.C., from flooding your news feed. We take a moment every week to bring you important stories beyond the White House and the Capitol. Here’s what we’re reading now.
1.Nicaragua withdraws social security overhaul that sparked deadly protests
Nicaragua has canceled a planned overhaul to the country’s social security system after days of deadly protests and looting.
President Daniel Ortega announced Sunday that the country’s social security board of directors withdrew the overhaul a week after it had been implemented.
The overhaul was supposed to reduce benefits and increase income and payroll taxes, which would have raised payroll contributions for pensions to 7.25 percent, one percent more than what Nicaraguans currently pay, according to the Associated Press. The changes triggered protests and looting throughout the country that resulted in deadly clashes with police. Among the dead was a journalist who was shot and killed while live-streaming on social media.
“We have to re-establish order,” Ortega said Sunday. “We cannot allow groups to impose chaos, crime and looting.” [The Associated Press]
Why it matters: The social security overhaul appeared to unleash pent-up grievances Nicaraguans have had against Ortega, according to the Associated Press. Critics have previously accused the president of manipulating elections and influencing other branches of government.
Though Ortega has previously faced protests since he was elected in 2007, the New York Times reports that these demonstrations could be the largest the nation has experienced since its civil year nearly three decades ago.
“This isn’t a struggle just from now,” Golden Rivas, a nursing student at the Polytechnic University in Managua, told the Times. “This has been a dictatorship for almost 12 years. The people can’t take it anymore.”
Reuters reports that the protests have died down since Sunday, but at least one march was planned for Monday.
2. Seven months after Hurricane Maria, where does recovery in Puerto Rico stand?
While the island has made progress since then, reopening major ports and airports and moving residents back into their homes, many parts of the island are still not back to normal. Last week, one blackout — the second major power outage in less than a week — left the entire island in the dark, the PBS NewsHour’s Ryan Connolly Holmes reported, raising questions about how stable the slowly recovering power grid truly is.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have authorized billions in funding to rebuild infrastructure and move residents into permanent housing. But FEMA administrator Brock Long told Congress last week that it would take at least $50 billion to completely rebuild the island’s infrastructure, and questions continue over whether FEMA contracts are being awarded to companies that have the ability to execute them, though the agency has denied that it has failed in that area.
“We have a long way to go,” Long said. [The PBS NewsHour]
Why it matters: This year’s hurricane season is weeks away, and officials are worried the island won’t be fully recovered before new storms begin to threaten their progress again.
Island officials are also starting to see some of the longer-term effects of the hurricane, they told the NewsHour, including on schools. Puerto Rico has struggled for several years with under enrollment in classrooms, but because of damage from the hurricane, the island will close 283 public schools next year. Nearly 40,000 students have left Puerto Rico classrooms since last May, Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher told the NewsHour. Some of them have gone with their families to the U.S., but many have simply dropped out.
“[A]t the end of the day kids don’t have the opportunity to learn and so someone has to be responsible for doing something about that,” Keleher added.
3. UK proposes ban on plastic straws as early as next year
The United Kingdom has proposed banning the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton swabs as early as next year.
The UK announced the plan last week, saying the ban is intended to protect the world’s rivers and seas.
Prime Minister Theresa May also called on the other 53 countries in the Commonwealth — many of them former British colonies — to do the same.
“Plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world, which is why protecting the marine environment is central to our agenda at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting,” May said ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week.
The UK said it has committed £61.4 million, or $85.6 million, to help countries in the Commonwealth stop plastic waste from entering oceans.
UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove has been tasked with launching a consultation on banning those three plastic items later this year. [Buzzfeed News]
Why it matters: The UK says an estimated 8.5 billion straws are thrown away in the country each year. The ban proposal is part of the UK’s efforts to reduce plastic waste by 2042. Taiwan announced earlier this year it was banning use of plastic straws by 2019, Buzzfeed News reported, and Scotland is looking into a similar ban.
Americans use 500 million straws in the United States every day, the U.S. National Parks Service said in its campaign to reduce plastics in the parks.
Many U.S. localities have implemented fees for using plastic bags, but banning things like plastic straws has been slower to catch on. Seattle, Miami Beach, and some towns and cities in Florida and California have banned plastic straws, or changed how they are used in restaurants — for instance, encouraging waiters to only offer straws when asked, the New York Times reported earlier this year.
Malibu, California, is also trying to ban single-use plastic straws and utensils. City officials have given eateries a June 1 deadline to swap out those items for reusable or biodegradable cutlery, NPR reported.
The UK government has already banned microbeads and introduced fees on plastic bags, which the UK said has led to 9 billion fewer bags distributed.
Last month, McDonald’s announced it would start phasing out plastic straws at its UK locations and replace them with paper straws.
“We’ve already seen a number of retailers, bars and restaurants stepping up to the plate and cutting plastic use,” Gove said, “however it’s only through government, businesses and the public working together that we will protect our environment for the next generation — we all have a role to play in turning the tide on plastic.”
4. Stevante Clark’s arrest underscores the mental health impact of police shootings on a community
Stevante Clark has been open about his difficulties in coping with his brother’s March 18 fatal encounter with police in Sacramento, California.
Two officers shot and killed Stephon Clark, who was unarmed in his grandparents’ backyard, while responding to a 911 call of possible car break-ins in the neighborhood. The officers said they believed Clark was holding a gun, but investigators said they recovered only a cell phone at the scene. An investigation by the police department, with oversight from the state’s Attorney General, is underway, along with a separate review by city officials of police department policy.
In April, the older Clark brother said he sought mental health help after the attention brought by the shooting and media coverage proved too taxing.
“I needed to be away from the fake love,” Clark told The Sacramento Bee. “The hospital helped me because they understand I am normal … I am not a celebrity. Now I’m scared,” he added.
Clark’s behavior reportedly grew more erratic in the two days after he was released from the mental health facility, eventually culminating in his arrest last week on several charges, including suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and making death threats, the Bee reported. Police said Clark was arrested after tensions between he and his roommates escalated, and Clark allegedly threatened one of them.
But Clark’s cousin Sonia Lewis told the Bee she was concerned that the 25-year-old was being jailed instead of rerouted toward mental health counseling.
“At this point, it’s a processing of his grief as well as continued mental health issues that he’s not addressing,” Lewis said. [The Sacramento Bee]
Why it matters: Stevante Clark’s arrest highlights the ripple effects gun violence — by police or otherwise — can have on a city, and how at times communities struggle to handle it.
In Chicago, advocates have called for city officials to put more money into mental health, not just increased policing, as the PBS NewsHour’s Ryan Connolly Holmes detailed last year. Thousands of people there, particularly on the city’s South and West sides, have been affected by gun violence. Chicago agencies have launched several programs over the last year to identify mental health trauma and intervene early.
Over the weekend, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg called on mental health professionals to volunteer in the African-American community, particularly in times of trauma such as the weeks that have followed Stephon Clark’s shooting. He said the city would launch a program to recruit volunteers, with the ultimate goal of having mental health experts give 50 hours of their time a year to the community.
In the meantime, CBS Sacramento reported that the Unity of Sacramento Church was creating a “safe black space” to encourage more residents to seek spiritual and mental health counseling.
“This is a big part of it — addressing trauma in appropriate ways, making trauma-based mental healthcare a priority in our community,” Steinberg said.
5. Now, global warming is even making your allergies worse
A major government report released late last year said the signs of global warming are stronger than ever — from bitter nor’easters to 2017’s designation as the second-warmest year on record.
Now, according to Vox, there’s also growing evidence that climate change is making seasonal allergies worse. Global warming has been linked to “higher concentrations of pollen in the air and longer allergy seasons,” Vox’s Umair Irfan wrote last week. It’s also made the length of certain allergy seasons longer. The ragweed pollen season, for instance, has increased between 15 to 25 days in some areas of the Midwest, Vox reported. And “it’s not just more pollen; the pollen itself is becoming more potent,” the director of the Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Center of Alaska told the news site. [Vox]
Why it matters: More than 50 million Americans suffer from some kind of allergies each year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Of particular concern is the pollen count, which is starting to get much worse, especially in far north areas like Alaska, Vox notes, where the birch pollen count is regularly 11 to 22 times higher than what used to be considered high.
But all pollen — whether from ragweed, birch, bluegrass, oak or other plants — is expected to double by 2040, Vox reports — which means, no matter what kind of plant makes you sneeze, your allergies are probably going to get worse.