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I’m a contact tracer. Trump’s advice not to fear Covid-19 is dangerous.

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After having first-class treatment for his Covid-19 diagnosis — a chartered helicopter ride to the hospital, cutting-edge therapeutics administered in a six-room presidential suite complete with crystal chandelier — Trump’s first statement to the American public was not that he was humbled by the virus that his administration had downplayed for months, it was this: “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

“Feeling really good”? “Don’t be afraid of Covid”? “Don’t let it dominate your life”?

In my hundreds of hours as a volunteer contact tracer for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, it is unimaginable to me that the president of the United States would promote this message about this insidious virus.

The CDC reports more than 200,000 Covid-19 deaths and well north of 7 million cases and counting in the US. Each of these individuals had a life, loved ones, goals, and dreams for the future. I know this because I speak with them for hours at a time, every week. Families across the nation are being pushed to their mental and physical limits by the weight of this pandemic. Whether it is the everyday stressor of risking infection each time you leave the home, or the financial stressors brought on by the recession, or the deep pain of losing a loved one and not being able to hold their hand in their final moments, our country is in a state of collective trauma due to this virus — and government apathy toward our pain and suffering only deepens the wound.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have served as a contact tracer for my local Department of Public Health. Every shift, I am assigned a list of people to call who are close contacts of a Covid-19-positive case (whether they know it or not), or people who are Covid-19-positive themselves. The idea is to try to get people who have been exposed to isolate and, hopefully, contain the spread. When I’m getting ready to make calls, I sometimes find it disorienting to look at the list of names and imagine that the person on the other end of the line, perhaps for the first time in their life, might have to reckon with their own mortality.

There is a little dance we play as contact tracers. Due to HIPAA, we are not permitted at any time to share privileged health information, but contact tracing requires that individuals be notified of exposure to a confirmed case. It is almost like playing a reverse game of Clue, where you as the tracer know the time, the place, and the person, but you are never allowed to say it directly. Each call typically goes as follows: I notify the person that they have been identified as a close contact of someone who is Covid-19-positive, meaning that they have been exposed to the virus. I then conduct a brief interview to piece together the sequence of events, as well as a picture of how they are feeling at this time, and then I connect them with testing and other services, if possible and if needed. The shift ends with documentation, documentation, and more documentation.

All of this has provided me with an unusually up-close picture of what many Americans are living through right now. It was near the end of my shift about a month ago when I called Rose (names have been changed throughout to protect people’s identities), a high school principal and mother of three. By the time I was able to reach her on the phone, her partner and one of her children had tested positive for Covid-19. She is well-connected in the Bay Area and has private health insurance. Yet she was unable to get herself or her other two children tested. The reason? Minors are not allowed in most, if not any, of the public testing sites in San Francisco, meaning that she couldn’t bring her children with her to be tested. Adding yet another layer of complication, her health insurance would only cover a testing site hundreds of miles away, impossible as she doesn’t have a car.

“So, if I can be completely honest with you, I’m basically between a rock and a hard place. I need to be tested and I need to have my children tested, but what am I supposed to do — get an Uber and possibly get the driver sick?” she asked me. “I can’t just leave for three days out of the blue like this. Can you help me, please?”

I felt that sinking feeling knowing how I was mostly powerless to help her. I felt for this woman and for the many women like her I’ve talked to in this pandemic whose duties to work and family have only multiplied. “I will do everything I can, Rose, I promise you. I’m so sorry to hear that you are going through this,” I said.

After I had counseled Rose to start isolating from her infected family members and reminded her that she was now under quarantine, I called our 1-800 number for tests. Even with the internal extension codes reserved for tracers, it took me two and a half hours, three transfers, and minutes of pleading to obtain her the single spot reserved for adults and minors in the city of San Francisco. There was no confirmation email or code for her slot, so she would have to take my word for it.

If this is the barrier to testing for someone with relative privilege and the learned ability to navigate systems, how can we expect testing to be anywhere close to universal for everyone, including the uninsured and those who are marginalized by the health care system? Answer: It isn’t, and that may be purposeful.

During a recent tracing call, I tried repeatedly to contact a confirmed case to no avail. Finally, on the fourth ring, the phone was picked up by his son, Junior. Junior explained that his father didn’t speak English and passed over the phone to prove it. Although we do have a translation line for times like these, there is often a delay in response, and many languages are not listed. Given it was the final moments of my shift, and I had only limited time to notify his father that he had been exposed to the virus, I was placed in the difficult position that comes with multilingualism. At that moment, I had to make a quick decision about whether or not I could, or should, share the news with Junior to pass on to his father. This is a heavy burden to place on a child, and even more so given the language barrier. As a tracer, I have to do what is best to protect both the patient and the public, which requires me to make these difficult decisions on a near-weekly basis.

Experiences such as these reaffirm the need for a health response that is inclusive of all, including those who are multilingual or non-English speaking. According to the US Census Bureau, more than 40 percent of Californians speak a language other than English in the home; language barriers are not uncommon, yet they are often not accommodated for by institutions. Public health campaigns may not always include a person’s language, and even in the best of circumstances where we are able to include a translator during contact tracing calls, so much vital information gets lost in translation.

This disease is also disproportionately deadly for Black and Latinx patients; in my experience, this is due to a mixture of social determinants of health, preexisting conditions caused in part by the chronic stress of racism in America, and medical racism in the health care system. Our health care and governmental institutions need to do better to address the medical and social needs of every patient, including and centered on those who have been underserved by the health care system.

Even in the minute percentage of times where the initial stages of contact tracing go exactly according to plan, there is still the issue of treatment. Enter Kara, a landscape architect. Young and otherwise healthy, Kara was able to have a Covid-19 test done at a walk-in testing site immediately that revealed she was Covid-19-positive. She was on her fifth day of isolation when I reached her on the phone. Kara told me that, although she wasn’t experiencing symptoms, she was nervous because she had heard the worst symptoms usually come on day eight. Kara is usually paid in cash and is uninsured. If she starts having symptoms, there are no options for her that don’t end in perpetual medical debt and/or financial ruin.

I found myself running a list in my mind of the things I could do for Kara. Each of the possible branches of my decision tree led to possible calamity, whether it was a mountain of future medical bills or an endless stream of applications for the chance to obtain a watered-down form of low-cost health care. There isn’t enough time for Kara — not enough time to look for other options, not enough time to travel from one free clinic to the next, and not enough time to wait for free public health care. She, and millions of Americans, need help now.

The president and his inner circle don’t have to argue, beg, or cajole for a test. They have the ability and the immense privilege to have access to immediate, on-site, daily tests that provide them with a barometer for their own health. Although the Covid-19 test is only a temporary indicator of one’s health status, it allows for decisions to be made that have ripple effects on the rest of the population: whether to isolate, quarantine, or be treated. The resident and his inner circle also have the privileges of guaranteed income, access to the highest level of care at state-of-the-art medical facilities, and essentially unlimited remote teleworking — benefits that most of the people I talk to could only dream of.

Unlike Donald Trump’s glib advice to Americans, for so many of the people that I talk to on a weekly basis, this virus is already dominating their lives. I’ve listened as people describe how they’ve lost their once stable jobs due to Covid-19, and how they aren’t certain how they’ll pay for the next week of groceries. How families of eight living in a two-bedroom apartment have had to navigate isolation when a mother tests positive. How that same mother can’t feed her crying infant when she knows she is positive, as there are still questions around whether the virus can be transmitted from mother to child through breast milk. How so many people can describe the event where they believe they may have been exposed — that one busy morning shift at the grocery store where they work, the time they had to take public transit because they had no other option, the first time they emerged from their home after four months of solitude and had a picnic with friends — and the regrets they have. I listen to the fear that is in their hearts.

The fact of the matter is, many of us are afraid of this virus, and rightfully so. It is easy for politicians to sit in gilded towers and spout platitudes about how Covid-19 isn’t that bad and to not be afraid, but I and the thousands of contact tracers and health care workers nationwide know the truth: This virus is deadly. This virus is pervasive. This virus has long-lasting effects beyond what we even know today. Covid-19 is disrupting the lives of everyday Americans, and will continue to do so until there is an effective government response.

Jahnavi Curlin is a dual medical student and Master of Public Health candidate at the University of California San Francisco. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Jahnavi has served with the San Francisco Department of Public Health as a volunteer contact tracer. Find her on Twitter @jahnavi_curlin.


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Nigeria’s SARS: A brief history of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad

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In April last year, Kofi Bartels, a 34-year-old radio journalist in Nigeria’s Rivers State, was filming three police officers from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) beating another man when they and three of their colleagues turned their attention to him.

In a series of tweets, he described being beaten and arrested: “They took turns to slap, punch and kick me while I was struggling with a swollen knee. At least six officers, one at a time.”

Philomena Celestine, 25, has also seen SARS brutality up close. In 2018, she was travelling home from her university graduation ceremony with her family in Edo State, when their car was pulled over by SARS officers and her two brothers taken out.

“My four-year-old niece was in the vehicle but they cocked their guns at our car and drove my brothers into the bush where they harassed them for over 30 minutes, and accused them of being cybercriminals. They could see my graduation gown but that did not deter them. My sister was trembling and crying in fear,” Celestine recalled.

These accounts are just two of many that sparked protests against the unit across Nigeria. It has been accused of harassing and physically abusing thousands of civilians since it was created in 1992. The #EndSARS protests resulted in the Nigerian government announcing earlier this month that it would disband the unit.

But this is the fourth time in as many years that the government has promised to disband or reform the unit that citizens say has terrorised them for decades.

And the problem of police brutality goes beyond SARS, the protesters say. According to Amnesty International, the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) is responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial executions, other unlawful killings and enforced disappearances each year.

A demonstrator paints ‘End Sars’ on a street during a protest demanding police reform in Lagos, Nigeria on October 20 [Seun Sanni/Reuters]

Beginnings

The Nigeria Police was first established in 1820 but it was over a century later – in 1930 – that the northern and southern police forces merged into the first national police force; called the Nigeria Police Force.

In 1992, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was formed to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes.

Before that, anti-robbery was the responsibility of the Nigerian Police Force generally although, from 1984, anti-robbery units existed separately as part of different states’ criminal investigation departments.

Other special units, which went by different names at different times, included the intelligence response team, special tactical squad, counterterrorism unit and force intelligence unit, formed to tackle rising violent crime following the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970.

By the early 1990s, armed robbers and bandits were terrorising Lagos and southern Nigeria.

Police officer Simeon Danladi Midenda was in charge of the anti-robbery unit of the criminal investigation department in Benin, southern Nigeria, at the time. He had some success in combatting armed robbery, earning a recommendation from the then inspector general of police.

With crime on the rise in Lagos, Midenda was transferred there and tasked with uniting the three existing anti-robbery squads operating in the former federal capital into one unit in a bid to break the stronghold of armed gangs. As the new sheriff in town, equipped with 15 officers and two station wagons, Midenda formed an amalgamated unit and named it the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992.

In the early days of the unit, combat-ready SARS officers operated undercover in plain clothes and plain vehicles without any security or government insignia and did not carry arms in public. Their main job was to monitor radio communications and facilitate successful arrests of criminals and armed robbers such as Chukwudi Onuamadike – best known as “Evans” –  who was arrested in 2017 after the police spent five years tracking him and placed a 30 million naira ($80,000) reward on his head.

A woman reacts as Nigerians take part in a protest against alleged violence, extortion and harassment by Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), in Lagos, Nigeria on October 11 [Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

Extorting money in broad daylight

For 10 years, SARS only operated in Lagos, but by 2002, it had spread to all 36 states of the federation as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. It was counted as one of the 14 units under the Nigerian Police Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department. Its mandate included arrest, investigation and prosecution of suspected armed robbers, murderers, kidnappers, hired assassins and other suspected violent criminals.

Emboldened by its new powers, the unit moved on from its main function of carrying out covert operations and began to set up roadblocks, extorting money from citizens. Officers remained in plain clothes but started to carry arms in public.

Over time, the unit has been implicated in widespread human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and extortion.

SARS officers then allegedly moved on to targeting and detaining young men for cybercrime or being “online fraudsters”, simply on the evidence of their owning a laptop or smartphone, and then demanding excessive bail fees to let them go.

In 2016, Amnesty International documented its own visit to one of the SARS detention centres in Abuja, situated in a disused abattoir. There, it found 130 detainees living in overcrowded cells and being regularly subjected to methods of torture including hanging, starvations, beatings, shootings and mock executions.

Now, Nigerians say they have had enough. Since 2017, protests have been building momentum across Nigeria, stemming from online advocacy to street protests. The anger about the unit’s activities culminated in a nationwide protest on the streets of 21 states this month after a SARS officer allegedly shot a young man in Delta State.

A demonstrator wearing a blindfold with an inscription “End Sars”, gestures during protests in Lagos, Nigeria on October 17 [Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

Amid the ongoing protests, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the unit would be disbanded. But this has not quelled the protests as young people continue to occupy the streets in large numbers demanding the immediate release of arrested protesters, justice for victims of police brutality, the prosecution of accused officers as well as a general salary increase for the police force to reduce corruption.

Young protesters say they have heard it all before. This is not the first time the government had disbanded SARS and promised reforms.

In 2006 and 2008, presidential committees proposed recommendations for reforming the Nigeria Police.

In 2009, the Nigerian minister of justice and attorney general of the federation convened a National Committee on Torture to examine allegations of torture and unlawful killings but made little headway. In October 2010, the then Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, allocated 71 billion naira ($196m) for police reforms.

In 2016, the inspector general of the Nigeria Police Force announced broad reforms to correct SARS units’ use of excessive force and failure to follow due process.

A demonstrator paints ‘End Sars’ on a street during a protest in Lagos on October 20 [Seun Sanni/Reuters]

A climate of fear

Historically, police officers who are alleged to have unlawfully killed Nigerians have faced few or no repercussions. For years, Amnesty International has reported cases of unlawful killings and police brutality by law enforcement agencies in Nigeria.

Reports of human rights violations committed by SARS have continued to mount, despite repeated promises of reform and accountability by the Nigerian government. The police authorities created a Complaint Response Unit (CRU) in November 2015, through which the police could process complaints from the public. To date, no SARS officer has been found responsible for torture, ill-treatment of detainees or unlawful killing.

The following year – 2016 – Amnesty International documented 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions by SARS with victims usually young men between the ages of 18 and 35 arrested during street raids on groups of people doing things such as watching a football match or drinking at pubs. Research by CLEEN Foundation, a Nigerian non-profit organisation which promotes public safety and access to justice, found that the Nigeria Police Force lacked an effective database on complaints and discipline management.

In March 2017, SARS arrested 23-year-old Miracle Ifeanyichukwu Okpara and detained him in Anambra State, eastern Nigeria, on a charge of having stolen a laptop. Amnesty International reported that he was tortured and hardly given any food during 40 days of detention before he was taken to court and charged with armed robbery. The court discharged the case for lack of evidence.

Finally, in 2017, Nigerians launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #EndSARS to document abuse and extortion by SARS officers and demanded the total overhaul or disbandment of the unit.

Promises from government flowed in again. In December 2017, the inspector general of the Nigeria Police Force announced plans to reorganise SARS units. In August 2018, Nigeria’s vice-president and then acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, ordered the overhaul of SARS but allegations of abuse by SARS agents continued throughout the year.

A cake in the shape of a man with the inscription ‘End Sars’ is pictured during a protest in Lagos on October 17 [Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

Socrates Mbamalu, a 28-year-old writer and journalist living in Lagos, described how he has been living in a climate of fear following multiple encounters with SARS officers. Mbamalu told Al Jazeera that SARS officers targeted him in the street and searched his backpack while he was studying in Ife, Osun State. He does not know why he was targeted – only that he is a young man who was carrying a backpack.

“They searched my backpack and saw my laptop which they accused me of stealing and demanded a receipt,” he explained. “They threatened to arrest and detain me, and searched my pockets, stealing my 1,000 naira ($3). In another instance, they detained me overnight in a smelly police station with dozens of others after they just picked us up on the street while walking at night. I still get traumatised whenever I encounter the police today,” he said.

Since protests began, young protesters have also been targeted by SARS. Judith Caleb, a 28-year-old blogger and one of the activists organising the protests in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, told Al Jazeera that the protest aimed to join in the fight to stop police brutality in the country and ensure accountability and justice for victims.

“In 2015, SARS killed one of our friends, Richard, a university student here in Kaduna. They accused him of buying a stolen phone, detained and tortured him until he died,” she said. “That is why we are out protesting. The police arrived here as early as 6am to stop the protest. They shot into the air to disperse us and arrested three people. But we were determined to continue with our peaceful protest. It is our right.”

Police use water cannon to disperse protesters in Abuja on October 11 [Abraham Achirga/Reuters]

‘I was saying my last prayers’

While demonstrations across Nigeria have remained peaceful, security forces have responded with more brutality. The police have shot tear gas, water cannon and live rounds at protesters across the country. Armed men have also disrupted rallies and attacked protesters, forcing the organisers to hire private security to repel the attacks.

Jimoh Isiaq, a 20-year-old university student, was shot dead on October 11, 2020, during an #EndSARS protest in Oyo State, southwestern Nigeria. Isiaq was killed when a police team monitoring the protest allegedly opened fire at demonstrators with live bullets.

On October 12, police officers in Lagos allegedly opened fire to disperse protesters, killing 55-year-old Ikechukwu Ilohamauzo, and arresting dozens of protesters. On October 16, police teargassed and used water cannon on a group of protesters in Abuja. Police officers attacked journalist Gimba Kakanda, injuring him, smashing his phone and slashing the tyres of his car. In a piece for Time about his experience, Kakanda wrote: “I was saying my last prayers. I really thought my life was going to end.”

Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, has decried the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters and said that it makes claims of any commitment to ending violations of human rights by the Nigerian police redundant.

People protest in Lagos on October 11, 2020 [Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

The #EndSARS movement is the biggest social protest the country has seen since the Occupy Nigeria movement of January 2012. It has attracted attention all over the world, with celebrities such as musician Kanye West, footballer Odion Ighalo, actor John Boyega and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey among a list of people to have voiced support for the protests.

Young citizens mostly in their 20s on the streets say they are tired of the promises of reforms and are expressing their anger at continuously being dehumanised and treated unjustly.

“The Nigerian police motto, ‘Police is your Friend’, has become a mockery,” said 22-year-old protester Maryam Ahmed.

For the #EndSARS protesters, restructuring the unit, changing its name and redeploying its officers to other units is not enough; reform must translate into accountability and justice.

“We are determined to continue these protests until justice is served,” Judith Caleb said as she arranged her placards, ready for another day of protest, hoping to fix a broken system, and along with her fellow citizens, begin to heal from the trauma.

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‘Amplifiers for idiots’: Former Google CEO slams social media

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Eric Schmidt says more regulation may be needed for social media, but US antitrust suit against Google is misplaced.

Former Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt said the “excesses” of social media are likely to result in greater regulation of internet platforms in the coming years.

Schmidt, who left the board of Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. in 2019 but is still one of its largest shareholders, said the antitrust lawsuit the U.S. government filed against the company on Tuesday was misplaced, but that more regulation may be in order for social networks in general.

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google [Bloomberg]

“The context of social networks serving as amplifiers for idiots and crazy people is not what we intended,” Schmidt said at a virtual conference hosted by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “Unless the industry gets its act together in a really clever way, there will be regulation.”

Google’s YouTube has tried to decrease the spread of misinformation and lies about Covid-19 and U.S. politics over the last year, with mixed results. Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have also been under fire in recent years for allowing racist and discriminatory messages to spread online.

Schmidt also argued Google’s massive search business — the target of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust suit — continues to be so successful because people choose it over competitors, not because it uses its size to block smaller rivals.

“I would be careful about these dominance arguments. I just don’t agree with them,” Schmidt said. “Google’s market share is not 100%.”

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US officials say Russia, Iran have obtained voter information

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Intelligence officials link Iran to threatening emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states.

The United States’ top intelligence official has accused Russia and Iran of obtaining US voter information and making moves to influence public opinion ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

John Ratcliffe, director of National Intelligence, made the announcement at a hastily arranged news conference on Wednesday that also included FBI Director Chris Wray.

The announcement two weeks before the November 3 election showed the level of alarm among top US officials that foreign actors were seeking to undermine Americans’ confidence in the integrity of the vote and spread misinformation in an attempt to sway its outcome.

“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran and separately, by Russia,” Ratcliffe said during the news conference.

Most of that voter registration is public, but Ratcliffe said that government officials “have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage”

Ratcliffe was referring to emails sent on Wednesday and designed to look like they came from the pro-Trump Proud Boys group, government sources told the Reuters news agency. A number of voters in Florida and other key states in the election battle between the Republican president and Democrat Joe Biden said they had received the messages.

[embedded content]

“You will vote for Trump on election day or we will come after you,” the emails said. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for.”

“I would take this seriously if I were you,” the message ends, adding the voter’s address.

‘Desperate attempts’

In addition to the threatening emails, Ratcliffe said Iran also distributed a video that falsely suggested voters could cast fraudulent ballots from overseas.

“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” Ratcliffe said, adding that Russia and Iran seek to “to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine confidence in American democracy”.

The top national security official did not explain how the Russians and Iranians had obtained the voter information or how the Russians might be using it.

US intelligence agencies previously warned that Iran might interfere to hurt Trump while Russia was trying to help him in the election. Outside experts said that if Ratcliffe was correct, Iran would be trying to make Trump look bad by calling attention to support and threats by the sometimes violent Proud Boys group.

A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations denied Iran had sought to meddle in the US election.

“Iran has no interest in interfering in the US election and no preference for the outcome,” spokesman Alireza Miryousefi said in a statement.

[embedded content]

US Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who received a classified briefing on Wednesday afternoon on election security, said he disagreed with Ratcliffe that Iran was specifically trying to hurt Trump.

“It was clear to me that the intent of Iran in this case and Russia in many more cases is to basically undermine confidence in our elections. This action I do not believe was aimed … at discrediting President Trump,” Schumer told broadcaster MSNBC in an interview.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump has directed government agencies “to proactively monitor and thwart any attempts to interfere in US elections, and because of the great work of our law enforcement agencies we have stopped an attempt by America’s adversaries to undermine our elections”.

Wray, the FBI director, meanwhile stressed that US election systems remained safe.

“We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election,” he told reporters.

“We’ve been working for years as a community to build resilience in our infrastructure and today that infrastructure remains resilient – you should be confident that your vote counts.”

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