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Interview With Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory; Interview With Greta Thunberg; Interview With U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired December 11, 2020 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
Here's what's coming up.
AMANPOUR (voice-over): Our house is on fire. Five years after the Paris climate accords, I ask John Kerry, Biden's special climate envoy, about
progress made and the heavy lifting still ahead. Climate activist Greta Thunberg joins me.
CARDINAL WILTON GREGORY, ARCHBISHOP OF WASHINGTON: The moment arrived, and I was very fortunate to be the person to receive this honor.
AMANPOUR: The Catholic Church's first African-American cardinal, Wilton Gregory on his extraordinary path to this historic moment.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL, "THE ATLANTIC": As bad as we thought it could get in one of the richest countries in the world.
AMANPOUR: The horrifying reality of America's COVID crisis. "The Atlantic"'s Alexis Madrigal does a data dump without our Hari Sreenivasan.
AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
On the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate accords, the price of inaction is clear to see. Too many across the world have felt the heat of
wildfires. Too many are seeing their homes threatened by rising oceans, and too much of the Earth's wildlife is being driven to the brink of
In spite of all this, though, there is still room for optimism. Today, the European Union is pledging to cut its emissions by 55 percent by the end of
the decade. This year, the world's carbon dioxide emissions plunged by 7 percent because of pandemic lockdowns.
And on this anniversary of the Paris agreement, one of the world's biggest polluters, the United States of America, is on the verge of rejoining the
pact, president-elect Joe Biden saying that his administration will take the climate crisis seriously.
And he's appointing the U.S.' first climate envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry. He originally signed the accords with his granddaughter
on his lap back in 2015.
And he's joining me now from Massachusetts.
John Kerry, welcome back to the program.
You have had so many roles and so many ranks, and now you're going to be the first ever us climate czar. So, can you tell us what exactly it
entails? I don't think it's about domestic policy. What will the job mean?
JOHN KERRY, U.S. SPECIAL ENVOY FOR CLIMATE CHANGE: Well, it touches on domestic policy simply, because we have to come up with a credible
reduction rate. Just as Europe has announced something, the United States is going to have to rejoin.
And we're going to have to rejoin with force. We're going to rejoin with humility. And we have to rejoin with a very powerful message about the
seriousness of purpose.
So, what we do domestically will matter to how we are taken abroad. But, fundamentally, my job is to be the negotiator to work on the Glasgow
meeting of the U.N. coming up a year from now, a little -- a little -- two weeks earlier, actually, in November, and to work with China, with India,
with countries all around the world, Europe, in order to make sure that this is real.
We cannot afford to go to Glasgow and do what we did in Paris. Paris set a standard for the beginning, but it also required every country to raise its
ambition if we weren't getting the job done. And the simple truth is, we're not getting the job done.
Only about six countries in the world are on track to meet Paris standard. Most people are not. We have to raise ambition very significantly. And we
have to be honest with the world. We have to lay out a plan for how we get to net zero in time to avoid the worst damages which scientists have
AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you, then, the first issue. And that is the credibility issue.
Over the last four years, the United States has been absent without leave from the climate accords. Let me just read a quote from the head -- the
dean of the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy: "That the U.S. walked away from the biggest challenge of this generation has left scar
tissue." That's with your international colleagues and interlocutors.
So, there's a big credibility issue. How do you -- obviously, you have so many links from being secretary of state and all your previous roles? How
do you plan to tell them that now you're serious and that, in four years time, you won't see another walk-back?
KERRY: Well, nobody's going to accept us just telling people we're serious. We're going to have to show people we're serious.
And President Biden understands -- president-elect Biden understands that. He's laid out a very ambitious program, with $2 trillion worth of
infrastructure building in America, building 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles, transforming school buses into electric vehicles,
setting new standards for automobiles, for buildings themselves.
He's going to put us ahead on the Kigali agreement, which will itself, by itself, reducing hydrofluorocarbons, it will actually reduce the rise of
temperature by about half-a-degree Centigrade. There are all kinds of things that president-elect Biden is committed to doing.
And by raising the position of climate envoy, by creating it, and making me a member of the National Security Council, he's saying clearly to the
world, we understand this is a security issue for the planet, and we're going to do our share.
Now, in fairness, Christiane -- and this is very important -- while Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement, the fact is that 38 states of our 50 in
America all passed renewable portfolio laws, and were living up to them; 1,000-plus mayors in America all have committed their cities to continue to
work towards Paris.
The day after Trump pulled out, I stood up at a press conference in New York with Governor Cuomo, with Governor Inslee of Washington and Governor
Jerry Brown of California, and we all joined together in announcing a movement called We're Still In.
We stayed in. So, the fact is that a lot of America, representing 80 percent of the population of our nation, has continued to try to live by
the Paris agreement. So, we may be derelict in the actions -- not maybe -- we are. Clearly, what Donald Trump did was irresponsible, was without any
basis, in fact or science. And he wasn't honest with the American people -- surprise, surprise -- when he told us why he was doing it.
No burden is placed on any nation. People willingly accepted what each of us have to do. The problem is, no nation accepted to do what the crisis
demands. That, I think, is the issue square in our face in Glasgow. We have to do everything we possibly can do. And then we have to be honest about
where the gap is and drive innovation and research and development in order to do the things necessary to get there.
This is not an exercise in politics are fun. This is the most serious challenges we have ever faced, all of us together on the planet. No one
nation can resolve it. We have to come together. China, the United States, we will have to work together as we did previously to get Paris. And we
will have to work with India and every other country in the world that has a challenge of transitioning to clean fuel and to better practices that are
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, then, about China, because those who are watching this process now unfold in the transition are basically saying
that, after rejoining the climate accord, the first, second, third, and fourth priority has to be China, China, China.
What do you anticipate? What has to be achieved with China?
KERRY: Well, President Biden, president-elect Biden has made it very, very clear that he is committed to cooperating where you can, but also to
drawing the lines that need to be drawn.
We obviously have differences with China on certain things, like access to market, business practices, and so forth, the Uyghurs and things. But we
don't have a difference when it comes to the question of climate. And we have to both prove it. China is funding the building of coal-fired power
plants in the world through its banking structure. They are aware of it.
I think they're sensitive to the need to take different steps. We need to keep that conversation open. And we need to work together, because,
together, the United States and China represent about 45 percent of all the emissions in the world.
KERRY: When you add Europe to the table, you're at over 50 percent, well over it.
And when you take the top 20 developed and industrial countries of the world, you have 85 percent of all the emissions on the planet. So, we have
a very profound and willingly accepted responsibility by president-elect Biden to step up.
And we have to get everybody else to step up too. Glasgow is the crucible, because we have to lay out a road map...
KERRY: ... for how -- you don't just make an announcement that we're going to be -- we're going to be net zero in 2040 or 2050 or 2060. We have to
show the world, all of us, each of us to each other, what that path is, how we get there.
And where we can't get there, if it's only 80 percent of the way, we owe it to the world to say, here are the gaps we have to close, and here are the
options for how we might try to close them.
I think this is actually -- I mean, some people are intimidated by this, but I think, Christiane, it's one of the greatest economic opportunities we
have ever had. We can create millions of jobs.
AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask...
KERRY: ... new product.
AMANPOUR: And let me ask you about that, because you have talked about convincing the world, doing your thing, going to China. We have heard the
E.U., as I said, has put a very ambitious target of reducing carbon emissions by 55 percent by the end of this decade.
We know that Vice President -- president-elect Biden wants to do the same by 2050. But you have the Republican leadership in the Senate. You have
people like Grover Norquist, who has said about your appointment, for instance, that you are "the poster child for what Middle America thinks the
elitists look like, who live in their fancy houses and drive their expensive cars, and use a lot of carbon and tell the rest of us that the
peasants are enjoying life too much."
Well, John Kerry, that's probably a little bit of a crude way of putting it. But, clearly, they're not for the kind of structural reform that needs
to happen. So, my question to you is, you're well-known to all of those people in the Senate now, including on the Republican side. So is
president-elect Biden, from his years as vice president, as senator, et cetera?
Do you think that you will have any easier time convincing them to get the country, the United States, and the government behind the effort to do
KERRY: Well, look, it's not only a crude way of putting it. It happens to be inaccurate. And many of us are working on the front lines to reduce
carbon footprints and to help provide different alternatives.
And I think our Republican colleagues on the other side of the aisle, they understand economics. They understand putting people to work. People in the
Senate know that, if you put a billion dollars in America into infrastructure, you create 27,000, to 35,000 jobs.
So, there are millions of jobs be created here, if you're going to be investing in strengthening America's infrastructure. That doesn't have an
elitist hat on it. It doesn't have a Republican or a Democrat label to it. That's common sense.
It's also pro-America and pro-world. All of us benefit if we are beginning to create the products of the future, which we could help the rest of the
world to adopt and live with. We have less developed nations in the world that are desperately wanting to avoid coal-fired power, but they don't have
So, if we come together as a developed world and put ourselves to the task, I think we convince Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, that
this is all common sense. The fact is that we will live better if we address climate change. We will live with less risk. We will live with
greater health. We will live with better jobs, more money.
We're going to have a greater security, which is why the president-elect, Biden, decided to make this position one that sits on the National Security
Council. And so I'm convinced Republicans will understand that.
And, by the way, a number of years ago, when I was in the Senate, I worked very closely with Lindsey Graham, with Joe Lieberman, with other
Republicans -- not Joe, when he was an independent -- but with Republicans, all of whom were committed to moving forward on this.
The science is overwhelming. It is not in doubt. We can get this job done. We can put not just America, but the whole world, to work on this
enterprise. And people will be excited by it. It doesn't require sacrifice. It requires political will to adopt what makes common sense for all of us.
AMANPOUR: That's right.
John Kerry, thank you very much. And good luck bending that political will, because you're absolutely right. And it's gone way to the top of the agenda
of ordinary Americans and people around the world.
And joining me next is Greta Thunberg, of course. She is the Swedish climate activist who became a global powerhouse with the weekly school
strikes that sparked a youth uprising around the world and has made climate and put it right at the top of the agenda.
And she's joining me right now from Stockholm.
Greta Thunberg, welcome to the program.
Let me first start by asking you. You must welcome the United States being back at the table with a very serious commitment that you just heard from
what's going to be the American climate envoy czar.
Oh, I can't hear Greta.
GRETA THUNBERG, CLIMATE ACTIVIST: Sorry.
Of course I am happy...
AMANPOUR: Yes, I hear you, Greta, now.
Yes, of course, I'm more than happy that the U.S. will rejoin the Paris agreement. That is absolutely crucial. And I'm (AUDIO GAP) trying (AUDIO
GAP) Of course, this is quite far from being enough, but at least it's got -- it started the discussion. And that's at least something.
AMANPOUR: So, I guess from you, I want to know what you think, from your perspective as a youth leader, what you think should happen next.
Obviously, we hear about the macro from the global leaders, whether it's the E.U., whether it's now the United States, whether it's governments
around the world.
But what specifically do you think that your generation and all of us need to see to make this a reality, addressing and trying to arrest the warming
of the planet?
THUNBERG: Well, the first thing we need to do is that we need to actually start treating the climate crisis like a crisis.
It has never once been treated as a crisis. And, of course, you don't need me saying that we cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.
And we need to communicate the situation where we are, because we need to understand that we are facing an emergency. We need to sort of change the
social narrative around this.
And, of course, as young people, we would really appreciate if we stopped only talking about future, distant, hypothetical goals and targets, like
the so-called net zero or whatever it may be, and start focusing on what we need to do now, because it is right now that the carbon budget is being
And the more future targets, yes, of course, we appreciate that. That is better than nothing. But the more we keep saying we will reduce our
emissions by this and that by 2030, even though it includes lots of loopholes and so on, or net zero 2050, the more things like that we do, the
more weight we put on the shoulders of future generations.
And we don't want to solve these problems for you. We want you to take care of it right now, because you are destroying our futures right now.
AMANPOUR: You are -- tell me what week you're in, more than 100 weeks of your weekly school strike, which, as I said, and everybody knows, sparked
similar strikes around the world.
Are you -- I mean, it's obviously been COVID. We haven't seen that kind of in-the-street demonstrations for a long time. Are you satisfied that it is
still a major issue in the grassroots?
THUNBERG: Actually, I'm very surprised about the attention that the climate has kept during the corona pandemic, because when we face a crisis
like this which affects the entire the entire world and our -- all our societies, then, of course, other things are going to have to be put on
hold, as we have seen with the climate and all other movements as well.
But I thought that, OK, now the climate is not going to be interesting, it's completely going to die and the momentum is going to -- is going to be
lost. But that wasn't the case.
And I think I was very positively surprised by that. And, of course, we haven't been able to demonstrate and to march on the streets, but we have
done different actions. For example, today, we had another global day of action. And it may be digitally or a physical social distanced strike,
where we do sort of -- I don't know -- actions that are corona-safe.
So, we haven't stopped.
AMANPOUR: And do you -- I mean, the other flip side of that is, you see now so many -- just the E.U. and the ECB -- I spoke to Christine Lagarde
yesterday. She's the president of the European Central Bank.
She wants to make climate central to the policies, central to investments, green investments. And you -- as I said, you have seen what the U.S. has
Do you feel that your generation and you have actually made a difference? And do you feel pleased about what you have done to do your bit for trying
to save the climate -- you know, the planet?
THUNBERG: Well, I mean, of course, we are doing everything we can.
And whether that has an effect is yet to be seen, because, as it is now, we haven't seen any response whatsoever in -- at the level needed. Of course,
the climate crisis has been more in the focus, but, I mean, that's not -- we are talking about -- we are still wasting our time creating loopholes
and talking about net zero targets and green investments, whatever green means. So, we need to move from these kinds of words and pledges to action.
And, yes, of course, it has been more discussed now than it was before. And maybe we have been a small part of that. And, in that, so then I guess we
are happy with that. But, I mean, of course, we are not going to be satisfied until we see real action.
AMANPOUR: So, some of the action comes after you get places.
So famously, you sailed across the Atlantic in order to address the U.N. I think that was last year. You wanted to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to
go all the way east. That was -- that was obviously postponed because of COVID.
Are you planning any more of those big trips? What's on the agenda for Greta Thunberg over the next year?
THUNBERG: I don't know. I think that 2020 has provided us with many lessons, among others, that you can't take anything for granted and you
can't plan that much, because everything might change overnight.
But, right now, I'm in school, online classes, which I'm -- I'm very much enjoying being back in school and having routines back, but, of course,
doing activism at the same time.
So, I have actually no idea. I will just have to take it one day at a time, and see what can be done.
AMANPOUR: Tell -- yes, tell me about -- you have been talking more and more about sort of a wider social justice aspect to climate in your
What have you been thinking. Talk to me a little bit about that.
THUNBERG: Well, I mean, of course, you can't achieve climate justice without achieving social justice, racial justice, indigenous justice, or
gender equality or whatever it may mean, and the same as you can't achieve social justice without achieving climate justice and environmental justice
and so on, because these problems are all interlinked, the same as we can't solve the climate crisis without addressing the biodiversity crisis or --
or -- I mean, because these problems are all interlinked.
They are all just symptoms of a much larger sustainability crisis, as I call it. Yes.
AMANPOUR: All right.
Greta Thunberg, thanks for joining us from Stockholm.
Now, under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church has climate change at the center of its agenda.
And my next guest has been instrumental in putting the church's environmental initiatives into practice.
Wilton Gregory is the first black American to be named a cardinal. It's the highest-ranking African-American Catholic in U.S. history.
And we spoke this week about his faith, his conversion, and racism in America.
AMANPOUR: Cardinal Gregory, welcome to the program.
GREGORY: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: It's a great pleasure to have you on.
You have made history, and not only that. You made history just before you turned 73, I believe, this week. The pope gave you a special birthday
present. Tell me what it was like...
AMANPOUR: What was it like kneeling in front of him, getting that benediction, and getting that amazing honor?
GREGORY: Christiane, it was very humbling.
I had had a chance to share a meal with the Holy Father. Actually, he had invited me to have lunch with him on Thanksgiving Day. And so I was able to
spend time with him. And we had a delightful luncheon conversation.
So, to kneel in front of him, to receive the cardinal's biretta, and to be given the cardinal's ring, and my title church was very humbling, and he
had made it very personal.
AMANPOUR: Cardinal, look, it's true that the -- you know, black Americans make up only 4 percent of the American Catholic Church, but you're the
first African-American cardinal.
Why has it taken this long?
GREGORY: Well, obviously, there are many people who have -- who've asked that very same question. I simply don't know. I know that we have had
wonderful African-American bishops and priests.
But the moment arrived, and I was very fortunate to be the person to receive this honor. I do believe it has been received well and with a
certain amount of gladness on the part of black Catholics, not just African-American Catholics, but Catholics who are here as African
immigrants and Haitians and African Hispanic people.
It has been received quite well and enthusiastically. So, I'm grateful.
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about your own story, because it's pretty amazing.
I mean, I think you were very young when you converted. I think you were 11. Were you 11?
And my family put my two sisters -- I'm the oldest of three. They put the three of us in a Catholic school, because they had long respected the
legacy of educational and religious formation that was to be found in Catholic schools. And, when the opportunity came, they jumped at it.
AMANPOUR: Your dad...
GREGORY: Therein, I ran into some wonderful priests, who were the parish priests, and sisters, who were the teachers in the school.
You were going to ask me about my dad.
AMANPOUR: I was.
AMANPOUR: It's a really moving story.
He wasn't, apparently, a regular churchgoer, but you did something amazing for him at the end of his life. Tell us that story.
GREGORY: Well, my dad, his health was failing.
And so I was the archbishop of Atlanta at the time, and I had come up to Chicago to visit him. Well, when I landed, a priest friend of mine called
me at -- literally on the plane, saying my dad had been taken by emergency vehicle to the hospital because he was suffering from a diabetic seizure.
So, I went from the airport to the hospital, into the -- to the intensive care ward. And he was there, with all of the equipment. And I looked him in
the eye, and he wanted to know why I was there. And I said I was worried about him.
And I looked at him and I said: "Dad, I think I ought to baptize you."
We had talked about faith, many, many times, of course. And he said: "I think you should, too."
So, I baptized my father on his deathbed back in 2010.
AMANPOUR: That's a really remarkable story.
I have to say that I can't get over the fact, I can't get my head around the fact that I'm speaking to somebody who, as a very young kid -- that's
you -- were at the funeral for Emmett Till.
And I just want you to tell me about what you remember from then and how it affected you and perhaps your spiritual journey thereafter.
GREGORY: Well, Christiane, I can remember that my grandmother took me to the wake.
And, as you and most of the viewers would remember, Emmett Till's mother insisted that it be an open casket wake, so that people could see the
brutality that her son had endured.
And I was probably 8 or -- 7 or 8 years old at the time. And I went with my grandmother, along with literally thousands of African-American Chicagoans,
to witness the awful brutality that that young man had suffered.
It was -- it was something that I shall never forget. We were in a long line. And, obviously, we just walked past the casket. And I recall seeing
the awful, disfigured body of that young man.
AMANPOUR: And I wonder whether you reflect on what is changing.
Do you believe now, right now, Black Lives Matter, this moment of uprising since the lynching, the execution of George Floyd is going to lead to
something different, something that Emmett Till's murder did not lead to?
GREGORY: Well, Christiane, I think, if there's any moment that I have witnessed in my life that this present moment is distinguished from, it's
that it's -- it's widely embraced.
The social media platforms have kept this in front of Americans. But it's also engaged a wide segment of society, not just in the United States, but
across the globe.
Businesspeople, sports people, professional people, entertainers, people who have prominent positions in life have been engaged and continue to hold
up this moment as, I hope, a transformative moment in human society.
AMANPOUR: You sparked some attention, let's say -- some people agreed, some people disagreed -- when you held President Trump accountable for what
many have called a photo-op.
And you called it, if I'm not mistaken, baffling and reprehensible.
Tell me what you were trying to say. I don't see you as the kind of person to throw around words. You must have considered your position and your
comments very carefully.
GREGORY: I did. And you will recall, Christiane, it was -- I was addressing it in reference to a visit to the John Paul II center, which is
a part of the Archdiocese of Washington. And it seemed to me that our churches should not be backdrops for political events. They should not be
used as props.
AMANPOUR: As you know, Pope Francis' latest book is called "Let Us Dream." And he says this about the threat around the world to democratic values,
"We see it happening again now in rallies where populist leaders excite and harangue crowds, challenging their resentments and hatreds against imagined
enemies to distracting from the real problems."
What are the real problems that you think these leaders or you think the pope is singling out?
GREGORY: I think the holy father is calling us to a deeper awareness of the unity of the human family, that we are not -- we don't face
difficulties, a pandemic, we don't face the future in isolation. We need to see a spirit or we need to pursue a spirit of collaboration, solidarity,
that embraces not just those who are privileged, the wealthy, but in a special way, takes -- pays careful attention to those who are impoverished.
There is a sense where men and women of good will are called to work together for the betterment of the human society, not just national
communities but the human society as a whole.
AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you about some of the issues that have plagued your church. Obviously, the church and cardinals and bishops can't go out
preaching until their own house is in order. On the issue of sexual assault against young boys over the last many, many, many, many decades, you had a
zero-tolerance policy, the pope has spoken out against this crime and this moral injustice that has been taking place in the church. And yet, there
are people who think that he's gone too far, or you've gone too far, and that's in the church, in the hierarchy.
Do you see this finally and fully being dealt with in a way that the church can hold its head up and finally make amends, reparations and put this
GREGORY: I certainly hope so, Christiane. You started your question by saying have we gone too far. We haven't gone far enough. We will never have
gone far enough until children are safe and cared for properly in every environment. I speak now of the environment of the church, where leaders
are held accountable for their actions and where we can say with great integrity and with great attention that we take this seriously and we are
committed to doing the right thing in all circumstances regarding the respect that is due to people, most especially to children.
AMANPOUR: And climate, the pope has put that in his encyclical. I mean, it's a major issue. And you see all these years, of President Trump's
administration, they have been batting away the science and removing regulations that keep water, air and all the rest of it as clean as
possible. Biden has promised to go back into the Climate Accords that were negotiated in Paris. What do you think as a church leader that you can do
to convince Americans, your flock, that this is a real danger and it has to be addressed?
GREGORY: Christiane, when the pope's Laudato si' was issued, I was the archbishop of Atlanta, and I was fortunate to be able to work in
collaboration with the scientists and professors at the University of Georgia, from -- in Athens, to develop a response plan to Laudato si'.
Because like many ecclesial documents, the words will not be effective until they can be implemented on many different platforms, on a diocese of
life platform, parishes, but also withing the families.
And I'm very happy to say that that resonated in a very, very positive way with young people, with students, but also with young adults who, I think
as a group, really see the importance of protecting the environment. Not just for themselves, but for their children and for the world that they
will hand this on to.
AMANPOUR: You will no doubt have noticed the Supreme Court recently struck down restrictions imposed by the governor of New York, also a Roman
Catholic, restricting church gatherings as a matter of public health. The Supreme Court stuck it down saying that religious freedom was more
important. I want to get your view on that and where you think your church or any church should be on the issue of public health in times of crisis
GREGORY: Well, we here in in the Archdiocese of Washington have been absolutely committed to following all of the health protocols that have
been demanded of us. Safe environment, sanitizing, social distancing, wearing masks. All of those things are in place in our churches.
And we do believe that we should, as religious people, be allowed the same latitude that other public structures are. Grocery stores and public venues
that have no limits or at least very generous limits, while too often, churches and other houses of worship have more restrictions. We here in the
Archdiocese of Washington have received no cases, at least none that we know of, where people have been infected by attending church.
So, we've asked for at least the possibility of proportional attendance. We just think we should not be treated any differently and certainly not
unfairly in comparison to other public places for attendance.
AMANPOUR: All right. On that note, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, thank you so much indeed for joining us.
GREGORY: Thank you, Christiane.
AMANPOUR: Our conversation earlier this week. And of course, COVID is dominating the United States. First the U.K., and now the U.S. say the FDA
is on the brink of approving the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, perhaps as soon as this weekend with vaccinations beginning next week.
Alexis Madrigal is staff write at the "Atlantic" who has been monitoring the pandemic since it began through this COVID Tracking Project. And here
he is telling our Hari Sreenivasan how -- what started as a personal interest became a vital tool in the fight against the virus.
HARI SREENIVASAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christian, thanks. Alexis Madrigal, thanks for joining us. For people who are unfamiliar with
the COVID Tracking Project, what is it?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL, CO-FOUNDER, THE COVID TRACKING PROJECT: We're a mostly volunteer organization that compiles state data and publishes it as a
national level so people can understand what is happening with the pandemic in the United States.
SREENIVASAN: And you decided to take this task on because, why?
MADRIGAL: Well, in the early days of the pandemic, the numbers available from the federal government, particularly the numbers of tests but also
hospitalizations and other things were quite incomplete. And the way they were often times presented on national websites wasn't working for people
to understand what was really happening.
I mean, the really crucial thing was, people kept citing the small number of cases in the United States. But the reason we had so few cases back in
the spring, particularly in February and March, is that we weren't testing anybody. So, we started to compile the number of people who were tested by
going literally with an army of people state website by state website and putting those numbers in the spread spreadsheets and coming up with useful
ways of analyzing them.
And there's the whole team, data quality team, that just spends time trying to think about, find out, interact with states to say like, what -- when
you say hospitalization, what do you mean? When you say adept, what's the specific definition? Because there's huge variability across states in the
way that they report key their metrics of the pandemic.
SREENIVASAN: This sounds like an opportunity or a role for a federal government to standardize what data states hand over and how often and how
MADRIGAL: Yes. It is. And, you know, I think as the pandemic has gone on, what has -- there's been different problems at different times. In the
early days, the data pipelines were not robust. The stuff actually just wasn't getting into the federal government. So, CDC, the Department of
Health and Human Services, they just kind of didn't know. And it's one of the major failures in the pandemic, in my mind.
As time has gone on, they built new systems, but there wasn't a lot of trust in those systems. And now, we're in a new phase, where the Department
of Health and Human Services has begun to release that data, which is really important. And now, we're trying to understand what is in it, verify
it, cross-check it against the kind of work we've been doing with the states. And I will say, the good news is, the data that has been coming out
of HHS so far, in the last couple of months, is pretty solid and it gives us hope that maybe someday the COVID Tracking Project won't actually be
necessary for people to understand the pandemic because our federal government will be doing the job.
SREENIVASAN: So much of this kind of ties together all based on data. If you don't have good information, you can't make good decisions. If you
don't know how many cases there are in a specific area, you can't figure out what sort of mitigation measures are required or necessary or optional.
MADRIGAL: Yes. I mean, that's exactly right. You need data in order to make decisions. And that is true at every level of the response. It's true
at the county, it's true at the state, it's true at the national level. You know, in our country, the way our public health system actually rolls
things out is incredibly local and incredibly distributed.
On the other hand, when assistance is coming from the federal government, they need to have summary statistics about the country so they know where
to send Remdesivir, so they know how to get doctors and nurses to hospitals that are being overrun. And without that crucial information, the federal
response just can't work.
And when we say, as you've probably heard many times, that the federal response has been uncoordinated and ineffective and things like that, it's
not because there weren't people working inside the federal government working really hard on this, there are thousands of them. It's because, at
the top, we had a ton of misinformation coming out of the administration and then deep-down in (INAUDIBLE), we had a lack of data and a lack of
reliable data for actually effecting the response.
SREENIVASAN: Alexis, in the spring, when this began, there was so much talk about flattening the curve. Giving hospitals a chance so that not all
of us were getting sick in surges. But in your last couple of columns that you've written for the "Atlantic" you're saying that the worst-case
scenarios that hospitals and doctors and epidemiologist were dreading is here now.
MADRIGAL: Yes. That's right. I mean, it's actually hard to talk about it. I mean, it is what we were warned about, that, you know, hospital systems
in particular areas with, you know, heavy surges would just have to turn people away, have to increase the admissions standards so that people who
would have gone into the hospital, you know, a few months ago with a case of COVID-19 get sent home. And what we know is that lowers the standard of
If you just look at how many people are dying, you know, back in the early fall, our team at the COVID Tracking Project did some scenario planning.
And we're living through the worst scenario that we were able to imagine at that time having looked at this data from March to September. You know,
just in the last few days, we're seeing 3,000 deaths in an individual day and we're, you know, edging up towards 2,500 average deaths per day in the
This is as bad as we thought it could get in one of the richest countries in the world, with a federal infrastructure that going into this pandemic
was ranked as one of the most prepared in the entire world,
SREENIVASAN: You know, those previous spikes, in the summer and the spring, we had about 60,000 people in hospitals, and even at those times,
we saw stories of nurses and doctors being overwhelmed. In December, almost every day this month, there have been more than 100,000 people in
hospitals. What does that do to the system?
MADRIGAL: Yes. I mean, it kind of dials up the pressure, right? It's not, you know, a binary, hospitals are fine when they have a little bit of
capacity in the ICU, and then when they cross 100 percent, then they collapse. It's a dial, it's turning up the pressure on every part of that
hospital system, not just on the nurses and the doctors, on the janitors, on people who serve food, all of the things that make a hospital run.
The biggest difference between the previous surges and the one right now, is, in the spring, it was really quite localized in the northeast, it was
quite localized around the New York metro area and a couple of others, you know, Detroit, New Orleans, but it was pretty local. What that meant was,
places that weren't seeing a lot of infections could send medical personnel to those areas to help.
You remember, all of those nurses and doctors who descended on New York and fought this pandemic in the hospital. In the summer time, it was really
concentrating in (INAUDIBLE), Arizona, California, Florida, Texas. And that meant that, you know, the other areas of the country could repay the favor,
they could send medical personnel to those places.
Now, it's pretty much everywhere. You know, I think we have deaths rising in, you know, something like 45 of states right now. It means that medical
workers need to stay put in their own regions, in their own hospitals. And so, you don't have this flexibility of that medical workforce in other to
get people moved around so that you can keep these hospitals with stacked beds and keep them from collapsing.
SREENIVASAN: And are we seeing the effects of people gathering at Thanksgiving already in the numbers?
MADRIGAL: We may, may be starting to see the very early indications of that. But really, the surges that we're talking about over the last 10
days, that was baked in before Thanksgiving. So, given the reporting lags and given the catch-up that states and local health departments have to do,
you can really start to expect to see those numbers over the next week or two weeks, and then we start to look further ahead.
You know, people that got infected at Thanksgiving, infecting the next layers out, the secondary and tertiary infections. And when's that going to
line up with, it's going to line up with Christmas travel season. So, there's a lot that's happening with the pandemic in the month of December
that is just lining up terribly for the actual outcomes for this country.
SREENIVASAN: So, when you've been watching these numbers so closely, week after week, you're starting to be able to see patterns. You're starting to
be able to see when the reported numbers are here, when it turns into hospitalizations and then, unfortunately, when it turns into deaths. And
what you're telling me now is that the ripple effects from Thanksgiving could be through Christmas and New Year's, and, of course, there's the
Christmas holidays. So, we're talking about possibly mid-to-late January until will we see the effect of the hospital season -- or I should say the
holiday season on hospitals.
MADRIGAL: That's exactly right. Yes. I mean, I think the timeline that I keep in my head, this is very rough, is, you know, there's a contact, you
know, someone gets infected. A few days later, maybe say five, that case is confirmed. Ten days after that, maybe 12, you see the hospitalization start
to rise from those infections. And, you know, about three weeks after that case is confirmed is the best match for when the death will show up in the
So, you're talking, there's considerable, considerable lag in all of these metrics that we track, and it's one of the things that makes this such a
difficult problem because people can't see the cause and effect smoothly. You know, they have to do this kind of difficult accounting for, you know,
my behavior now, will mean, you know, something in a month, you know. And people are not that good at that kind of accounting.
SREENIVASAN: Whether it's fatigue from the pandemic and the type of lifestyle changes that we've had to make or political indifference, whether
it's just ideological, I mean, it just seems stunning that we are now crossing 3,000 people dying a day and we've kind, well, normalized it.
MADRIGAL: Yes. I mean, I think it is kind of horrifying. The truth is, this is hard. You know, the federal government did not deliver enough
stimulus to keep people at home. Did nothing for their restaurant industry. You know, I mean, these are huge problems that are partially caused by our
politics, and we know that these things could be better. If you paid people to stay home, they would be a lot more likely to stay home. The choice was
never, you know, stay home and starve or go out and work. It never had to be that way.
And I think two major things happened. You know, you had a sustained misinformation campaign, largely from the right wing, that the pandemic
wasn't a big deal. And it was never an attempt to create an actual alternative working theory of, you know, federal government response, ala
Sweden. Instead, it was just tossed up against all these numbers. Oh, you know, these are -- that's a case-demic. It doesn't matter. It's just cases.
Well, actually, cases in deaths are incredibly well correlated particularly since the summer time.
Oh, well, you know, these hospitalizations don't mean anything. Some hospitals are fine. But, you know, if you look at the fine grain data
coming out of individual hospital systems, some of the hospital systems are not OK. And it's flooding the zone with bad information. And that flooding
of the zone has created huge chunks of the population who just think they don't have to worry about this. And the death numbers, the individual
stories of people dying alone in a hospital at 80 years old or dying in a long-term care facility, people have been inoculated against the power and
horror of those stories by bad misinformation campaigns. And honestly, it's just so, so tragic. Particularly right now, when we know there are vaccines
that are going to be approved and going to be deployed almost any minute now.
SREENIVASAN: Recently, we've also started to see hospital level data in certain places, but where are we at in that? Is there a steady stream now
of hospitals publishing exactly what kinds of stresses they are under?
MADRIGAL: So, this is actually a small bit of fantastic news among, you know, the rest. This is a big deal. HHS, you know, Health and Human
Services, is now putting out a weekly report with facility level, that means, you know, down to the hospital level data about the stress that
those hospitals are under. Staffing shortages, the number of patients they have in the ICU, all these kinds of things. We just got this released this
week, and it is just -- it orders of magnitude better than what we've been able to see either, you know, just looking at the state level, which is
what we've been able to track at the COVID Tracking Project, or just looking, you know, at just individual hospital systems that may have their
own, you know, idiosyncrasies in the way that they present data.
So, you're talking about this data set is really the foundation of a dashboard you could build for seeing where hospitals were being
overwhelmed. And I have no doubt that based on what the Biden campaign and transition team have said publicly, that we're going to see something like
this. And I think and I hope, having looked at some of the data preliminarily, that it will change some minds.
Like when you see how many hospitals have more than 50 percent of their ICUs occupied by COVID-19 patients, that just tells you the scale of the
problem. And if you look at the map, there are just red dots all over it. And I hope that when people who have become inured to the horror of this
pandemic, take a look at something that, and they think about every nurse and doctor and janitor and, you know, food service worker who is in there
that it changes some minds and maybe changes some behavior, because nothing that we're doing right now is slowing down the virus.
SREENIVASAN: So, right now, are we at a point where if somebody shows up at the hospital, that the hospital, depending on how backed up they are now
because of other COVID patients are going to triage them and say, maybe a month ago, we might have admitted you, but today we just can't?
MADRIGAL: Yes, I mean, we've been relying on some analysis by Ashish Jha at Brown University, dean of the public health school there. And he looked
at the numbers, and was able to show that a declining percentage of the cases that we're confirming are actually becoming hospitalizations. And the
most likely reason for that is that the admissions criteria have been tightened up and people are being sent back home to ride it out in their
own houses where before, you know, a month or two ago, they would have been admitted into the hospital.
So, the hospitalization numbers that we're seeing, as incredibly high as they are, over 100,000 and continuing to rise, we're like over 106,000 now,
they're even lower than they would be if we still had the admissions criteria and we're trying to help as many people as we were back in October
by hospitalizing people.
So, this is just an absolute crisis for the health care system. And I think I just want to emphasize, it's not like we're seeing the worst. The worst
is still ahead. It's already baked in. And so, the next few weeks, I think people should prepare themselves. I mean, these numbers are not going down.
SREENIVASAN: Alexis Madrigal of the COVID Tracking Project and the "Atlantic," thanks so much.
MADRIGAL: Thank you for having me.
AMANPOUR: It's a bleak forecast and it's a very, very strong warning. But here's an encouraging thought. Throughout this program, we have talked
about human impact on our environment. And it's reminded me of this conversation I had with the great Sir David Attenborough just about at the
beginning about reconnecting with nature while on lockdown.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH, NATURALIST AND BROADCASTER: I'm supposed to stay at home, which is what I'm doing. But the skies are so blue, the birdsong is
so loud, and I can hear it over because there's are no airplanes. I mean, I live quite close to London Airport. Normally, I wouldn't be able to talk
for longer than 90 seconds or so before a drone of an airplane came by. Now, it's an event to see an airplane in the sky. And I can hear the bird's
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: And that' is contributed to the serious drop in carbon emissions.
That's it for now. Thank you for watching. And good-bye from London.