COVID-19 International Developments: Daily Scan, April 11, 2020
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF
Dispute among German Virologists on Heinsberg Study

On April 9, the virology professor, Hendrik Streeck, presented "interim results” on the "Covid-19 Case Cluster Study" to the press. Streeck and an interdisciplinary team from the University Hospital of Bonn had carried out study on transmission of the virus in the past few weeks in the Heinsberg district. Heinsberg is also known as the Wuhan of Germany. The preliminary conclusions of the Heinsberg study were the number of pathogens affects the severity of the disease. The virus could survive in areas over a long period of time, but in order to trigger an infection the virus had to get into the mucous membranes- for e.g. through the mouth or eyes. The likelihood of dying from the disease was estimated to be 0.37% in the region, way off from the Johns Hopkins estimate of 1.98% in Germany. Streeck went on to suggest that the first strict conditions could be withdrawn ifthe citizens continue to follow the hygiene rules (washing hands, cough etiquette, two-meter distance). However, in another digital press conference same day, Christian Drosten, the chief virologist of the Berlin Charité and a consultant to the federal government, disputed the results saying there was no paper yet detailing the investigation in relation to the sample, the testing and the interpretation of the data.

Germany to launch wider studies after dispute on Heinsberg Study

Lothar Wieler, the President of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), announced that the RKI will begin large-scale, nationwide representative studies in cooperation with the Berlin Charité and the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research from Braunschweig next week. According to Wieler, these should provide answers to three pressing questions. First, how many people in Germany have already experienced the corona virus infection, whether noticed or not, and are they immune to it? Second, what is the proportion of so-called asymptomatic cases, i.e. diseases that go unnoticed? And third, how many people actually died from the infection - and not from another, parallel disease? Germany is also set to carry out Europe’s first large-scale coronavirus antibody testing in an effort to help researchers assess infection rates and monitor the spread of the virus more effectively.

France's 'pop-up' Covid-19 centres help relieve ER overcrowding

Consultation centres dedicated to patients with Covid-19 symptoms have been set up across the greater Paris region, allowing doctors to treat coronavirus patients while relieving the burden on emergency rooms."The aim is to relieve emergency room crowding by first determining which patients need hospital treatment and which have weaker symptoms. This is what we call separating the 'hot' and 'cold' flows, and it is essential in the current crisis," explains Dr. Frédéric Thibault, project coordinator of the Covid-19 centre in Nogent-sur-Marne. And it is critical to the safety of medical staff and other patients, which has been compromised from the start of the outbreak by insufficient resources for protecting against the virus’s spread. Out of about 50 patients seen each day at these pop-up Covid-19 centres, five or six are transferred to a hospital. The triage work done by the centres is offering a much-needed respite to the overstretched emergency room workers at a time when France is still struggling to lower its rising coronavirus cases and fatalities.

WHO sounds alarm over new Ebola case in Congo

A 26-year-old man became the first person to be infected with Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since February, UN health officials declared on April 10. Regional health authorities later said the man had died from the virus." Unfortunately, this means the government of DRC will not be able to declare an end to the Ebola outbreak on April 13, as hoped," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO).The ongoing epidemic was declared in August 2018 and has since killed 2,200 people. It also prompted a large vaccination effort which saw over 300,000 Congolese residents receive their immunizations. After not seeing any infections for several weeks, however, authorities were preparing to declare the epidemic over. Commenting on the continuing outbreak, WHO Africa chief Matshidiso Moeti said he was "sad" to hear about the new infection, but pledged that the WHO would continue to work with the Congolese Health Ministry to "end Ebola."

Global COVID-19 death toll crosses 100,000 milestone

The worldwide death toll from COVID-19 passed the 100,000 mark on April 10, three months after the new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China. More than 1.7 million declared cases have been registered in 193 countries.

Torn over Reopening Economy, Trump Says He Faces ‘Biggest Decision I’ve Ever Had to Make’

“I’m going to have to make a decision, and I only hope to God that it’s the right decision,” Trump said on April 10 during his daily news briefing on the fight against the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 18,000 Americans so far and put more than 16 million out of work. Seizing on new estimates of a lower-than-projected death toll, the president signalled that he wanted to start resuming business on some basis after his current stay-at-home guidelines expire on April 30, and he announced that he would name a task force next week to develop a plan. But he also promised to listen to public health officials cautioning against a premature move to relax limits. In actuality, the decision on staying indoors was issued by governors state by state, and their support will be crucial to restarting the economy. However, lobbying groups have become more vocal about the need for the administration to create a plan for the reopening of the economy.

Turkey, Israel turn pandemic into opportunity to mend ties

In an interesting move that transcends a years-long diplomatic standoff between the two countries, Turkey began supplying medical equipment to Israel to help the country in its struggle against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. In return, Israel is set to green light Turkey’s shipment of medical aid to the Palestinian Authority, according to a Bloomberg report. Relations between Turkey and Israel broke down in May 2010 during the Mavi Marmara crisis, in which a Turkish-owned aid flotilla, attempting to breach the Gaza Strip blockade, was raided by Israeli commandos, who killed 10 activists. Following this assault, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged that Israel should be punished for its “bloody massacre.”In March 2013, with US mediation, Israel and Turkey’s prime ministers proceeded to normalize diplomatic ties and stop legal action against the former Israeli commanders, while making arrangements to compensate the victims’ families. “This is surely a very interesting development, yet I doubt it will break the ice between Turkey and Israel as the friction between them has been especially deep during the last decade,” Karol Wasilewski, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International Affairstold Arab News.

China Pushes Viral Messages to Shape Coronavirus Narrative

China has been buying up ads on US social-media sites and adopting online tactics reminiscent of Russian disinformation campaigns in an apparent attempt to shape the story internationally about the coronavirus response, according to researchers analysing the activity. The efforts include ad purchases on Facebook Inc. promoting the English-language arms of Chinese state-media outlets, as well as posts there and on Twitter Inc.’s platform that in some cases disparage US efforts to fight the global pandemic, the researchers mentioned.

Chinese PLA holds ‘regular’ drills near Taiwan in preparation for military struggle: mainland experts

The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) reportedly held military drills featuring warplanes near the island of Taiwan on April 10, and such drills, having taken place at least four times since the traditional Spring Festival holiday in January, have become regular and are now a part of military struggle preparations against the island, mainland experts said. Multiple PLA warplanes, including the H-6 bombers, KJ-500 early warning aircraft and J-11 fighter jets, conducted a far-sea long-range drill above south western waters near the island of Taiwan, Taiwan media reported on April 10, citing the island's defense authority. The PLA warplanes entered the Western Pacific Ocean through the Bashi Channel, and then returned to base along the same route they came from, reports from the island said. Song Zhongping, a mainland military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on April 10 that the drills were a part of preparations for the potential military struggle against the island of Taiwan, and such drills have become regular and routine.

US Navy destroyer transits Taiwan Strait on same day as Chinese drills

A US Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait on April 10, the US and Taiwan militaries said, the same day that Chinese fighter jets drilled in waters close to the democratically-ruled island.China, which considers Taiwan its own, has been angered by the Trump administration's stepped-up support for the island, such as more arms sales, U.S. patrols near it and a visit to Washington by Vice President-elect William Lai in February.Taiwan and China are also embroiled in a bitter spat about the former's lack of membership of the World Health Organization during the coronavirus outbreak, because of objections by Beijing, which views it as merely a Chinese province. The U.S. Pacific Fleet named the ship that sailed through the Taiwan Strait as the Arleigh Burke-class USS Barry. "Barry is forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region," it said in a brief statement on its Facebook page on April 11.Taiwan's defence ministry said its armed forces monitored the ship as it sailed south through the waterway. It described the U.S. ship as being on an "ordinary mission".

China to ease urban residency restrictions to boost urbanization

China plans to ease restrictions for rural residents applying for urban household registration status and allow more people to enjoy public services, according to a document released on April 9. Cities with a resident population of less than 3 million should remove all barriers for rural residents to apply for urban household registration status, or hukou, according to the document released by the National Development and Reform Commission. For bigger cities, those with a resident population of more than 3 million, restrictions should be loosened for certain groups of people such as migrant workers with stable jobs in cities and college students from rural areas, according to the document. Under a national plan for a new type of urbanization, China has set a goal to help 100 million rural residents and people living in cities without an urban hukou settle down in cities and towns from 2014 to 2020.

Oxfam: Coronavirus could push half-a-billion people into poverty

Oxfam’s report, titled “Dignity Not Destitution,” said 6-8 percent of the world’s population could be forced into poverty as governments shut down their economies to slow the spread of the virus.King’s College London and the Australian National University conducted Oxfam’s research, which found that a 20 percent drop in income from a recession due to COVID-19 would leave 548 million people living on less than $5.50 per day, one of the World Bank’s definitions of poverty. “The estimates show that, regardless of the scenario, global poverty could increase for the first time since 1990.” The report added that some countries could face their poverty rates set back to levels not seen for three decades. Nabil Abdo, a senior policy advisor at Oxfam, told Arab News that the MENA region faces specific challenges with the economic downturn due to “prevailing socioeconomic and political structures that were in place long before the outbreak.”

UN Security Council asks Houthis in Yemen to commit to cease-fire

The Security Council on April 10 called on Houthi rebels in Yemen to commit to a cease-fire.In a press statement, the council members endorsed UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' March 25 call for a cease-fire in Yemen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They also welcomed the announcement of a unilateral cease-fire in Yemen by the Saudi-led military coalition, which has been fighting the Houthis to restore the internationally recognized government. The council members welcomed the Yemeni government's positive response to Guterres' cease-fire call, and called on the Houthis to make similar commitments without delay.The council members encouraged the parties to continue their cooperation with Guterres' special envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, in order to reach a Yemeni-led and Yemeni-owned, comprehensive and inclusive political settlement to address the legitimate concerns of all Yemenis.Yemen's civil war has lasted for five whole years, pitting Houthi rebels against government forces. Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition force defending the internationally recognized Yemeni government against the Houthi rebels.

Turkish, Russian diplomats discuss Syria situation

The deputy foreign ministers of Turkey and Russia discussed the situation in Syria in a phone conversation on April 10, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. “A range of issues related to the Syrian settlement, including the implementation of the Russian-Turkish agreements on stabilization in Idlib, as well as the tasks of promoting the political process led and implemented by the Syrians themselves with the assistance of the UN in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254, were discussed in detail," read the statement. On March 5, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed on a new cease-fire in Idlib. Under the deal, all military activities were to end in Idlib with the establishment of a security corridor six kilometres (3.7 miles) to the north and south of the key M4 highway. Joint Turkish-Russian patrols agreed in the deal also began on March 15 along the highway from the settlement of Trumba -- two kilometres (1.2 miles) to the west of Saraqib -- to the settlement of Ain al-Havr.

Trump Vows to ‘Expedite Help’ for Beleaguered US Farmers

President Donald Trump said he has asked his agriculture secretary to “use all of the funds and authorities at his disposal,” to aid US farmers, whose financial peril has worsened in the coronavirus pandemic.The administration plans to announce an aid package next week, according to people familiar with the discussions. Trump in a Twitter post on April 9 said he wanted to “to expedite help to our farmers, especially to the smaller farmers who are hurting right now.” His tweets did not provide specifics, but the coronavirus relief bill Congress passed last month includes $23.5 billion in aid for farmers. Speaking at a news conference on April 10, Trump said his administration will develop a program with at least $16 billion for farmers, ranchers and producers. Farmers, who have already suffered through the US-China trade war and years of grain gluts, have been dealt a further blow by the virus which has damped the outlook for commodity demand.

China Tightens Customs Checks for Medical Equipment Exports

China will subject ventilators, surgical masks and other medical equipment to more stringent customs checks before exporting them, after recipient countries questioned the quality of much-needed personal protective equipment made in the country. The new rules, introduced on April 10, target 11 classes of items to extra inspections. Beyond masks and ventilators, they also include protective clothing, infrared thermometers, surgical goggles and gloves and medical disinfectants. Last week Beijing introduced new rules banning companies from exporting medical products unless they were licensed to supply them to the domestic market. That restriction came amid growing concerns and several complaints about substandard products, including Covid-19 test kits, from foreign buyers. Nevertheless, the world remains heavily dependent on China for the protective gear it needs. More than 50 countries and three international organisations had signed export contracts with Chinese manufacturers of medical gear.

China releases guidelines on advancing work resumption amid epidemic control

China will advance resumption of work and production on the premise of effective epidemic containment in an active and orderly manner, according to a guideline released by the working group of China's COVID-19 epidemic response.In low-risk areas, efforts should be made to resume normal work and living order as soon as possible, while staying vigilant to prevent risks of imported coronavirus cases, said the circular. Meanwhile, targeted approaches should be adopted in medium- and high-risk areas to coordinate work resumption and epidemic prevention, it said, urging efforts to tighten health monitoring of employees and prevention measures in workplaces, according to the State Council circular. Efforts should be made to push forward production resumption of the entire industrial chain, as well as the restarting of the service sector, it said. With effective containment measures in place, urban and rural routes and public transportation should resume full service, the working group has said. No barriers should be kept to restrict personal movement between low-risk regions, and quarantine shall not be a must before workers return to their jobs in such regions.

Shanghai unveils 24 new policies to bolster foreign investment, lift development

A total of 24 new policies were released in Shanghai on April 10 for attracting foreign investment and stabilizing economic development to further stimulate the economy amid renewed confidence on recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.There are 152 major projects planned in Shanghai this year, with the total investment reaching 2 trillion yuan ($284 billion). In specific, the city will support foreign investors to enter industries such as finance, healthcare, education, telecommunication, new energy vehicles etc. in the country's new round of opening-up. Shanghai will alsoease the mechanism for foreign investors to file complaints and better protect their legal rights. Heavier penalties will be imposed on those who have significantly infringed upon foreign companies' intellectual property rights.The policies also include pressing ahead with the resumption of key construction projectsand optimizing the overall investment environment.

Global Trade Sputters, Leaving Too Much Here, Too Little There

The pandemic has slammed the brakes on various segments of global trade. Companies making electronics, appliances and other products would exhaust their “safety stock” for components in the coming weeks. Products have been piling up at container terminals in China, while some ships departing from the United States have been sailing empty. As plane traffic plummets, airfreight has become prohibitively expensive. UPS, DHL Global and FedEx have suspended service guarantees, saying they expect delays in shipping as a result of the coronavirus. “Even if coronavirus were to magically disappear tomorrow, it would still takes weeks if not longer for supply chains to get moving again, and probably months before you felt like things were normal again,” said Robert M. Landry, the chief commercial officer of the Port of New Orleans. The World Trade Organization is forecasting that global trade volume could shrink between 13 percent and 32 percent, or even more, compared with the previous year.

Bankers issue warning over US business support scheme

A $600bn Federal Reserve scheme to help larger companies during the coronavirus pandemic will need to be carefully designed to attract users, according to bankers and industry figures. Initial plans for the for the Main Street Lending Programme (MSLP)propose that the four-year loans on offer — which will be available to companies employing up to 10,000 workers or with revenues of less than $2.5bn — will charge a rate of between 2.5 and 4 percentage points above the US main interbank lending rate. “For this to work, there’s going to have to be a calculus where the borrowers wish to participate, and the lenders wish to participate,” said one industry figure, adding that the same was not true for the $350bn Paycheck Protection Programme for small businesses because the Federal Reserve promised to take those loans off of bank balance sheets.

Oil companies pivot to plastics to stave off losses from fuel demand

As wind farms, solar plants and electric cars threaten demand for fossil fuels, oil and gas executives are betting big on another environmental vice: plastic. Petrochemicals, which make up 99% of all plastics, are the versatile building blocks of modern life. Derived from petroleum and fossil gas, they are found in clothes, paper, fertilizers and cleaning products — and even food preservatives and medicine. Petrochemicals are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil consumption, a report by the International Energy Agency found in 2018. They are set to account for a third of the growth in demand to 2030 and half of the growth to 2050, ahead of trucks, planes and ships. Plastic production has increased about 200-fold since 1950, but only 9% of the plastic ever made has been recycled, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances in 2017. Despite its many uses, some experts say the proliferation of plastics is not driven by demand. Each year, millions of tons of plastic floods into oceans and wash up on beaches, killing fish and other marine life.

Russian Government Completes $28B Sberbank Swap

The Russian Finance Ministry has completed the purchase of a majority stake in Sberbank, from the country’s Central Bank in a 2.1 trillion rouble ($28.5 billion) deal. Sberbank is the largest bank in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe. It has been under western sanctions from 2014. The Russian government tapped into its sovereign wealth fund to finance the unorthodox purchase, which was first rumoured to be on the cards at the end of last year. The economic turmoil from the coronavirus pandemic significantly altered the original plans for the swap, which was planned to be completed in tranches over an 18-month period. Instead, under the new deal, the Central Bank sold its 50% plus one stake in Sberbank, Russia’s largest financial institution, in one move at a price of 189.44 roubles per share. The Central Bank has already transferred 50% of the shares, a statement from the regulator and Russia’s Finance Ministry said on April 10, with the final single share to be transferred within the next month due to legal technicalities.

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