COVID-19 International Developments: Daily Scan, April 20, 2020
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF
Antibody Test, Seen as Key to Reopening Country, Does Not Yet Deliver

As President Trump presses to reopen the country and several states are considering lifting lockdowns in the next few weeks, widespread screening is considered critical. The tests, many made in China without F.D.A. approval, are often inaccurate. The Food and Drug Administration has allowed about 90 companies, many based in China, to sell tests that have not gotten government vetting, saying the pandemic warrants an urgent response. Some doctors are misusing antibody test results to diagnose the disease, not realizing that they can miss the early stages of infection. Epidemiologists are testing for antibodies in hot spots to better measure the extent of the outbreaks, and government officials intend to use those results to help decide when and how to return residents to daily life. But many scientists and political leaders say the country is nowhere close to deploying enough diagnostic and antibody tests at the speed and volume required.

Ventilators are being overused on COVID-19 patients, world-renowned critical care specialist says

As emergency and intensive care doctors around the globe work frantically to save the lives of people gravely ill with COVID-19, one of the world's foremost critical care experts is warning against what he calls the misuse and overuse of mechanical ventilators. "A standard treatment cannot be applied to an un-standard disease," said Luciano Gattinoni, a world-renowned Italian intensive care specialist. He was referring to the current protocol for the machines used to push oxygen into the lungs of patients gravely ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. At the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy, many emergency departments were immediately placing COVID-19 patients with alarmingly low levels of oxygen on mechanical ventilators, a standard practice for a condition known as Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).

Manila and Mumbai beat Tokyo at social distancing, Apple data shows

Asians are commuting more than Europeans and Americans despite the coronavirus pandemic, Apple's mobility data showed on April 15, suggesting that they are practicing less social distancing. But there is a disparity. People in Bangkok, Manila and Mumbai have reduced their outings far more than those in Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul, as some of the region's authoritarian leaders have resorted to draconian measures to contain the outbreak. Asians, not including Chinese, have been less affected by the coronavirus outbreak than Europeans and Americans. But epidemiologists have been warning about the risks of contagion in countries that have far fewer resources to deal with the pandemic. The data showed a drop in requests for driving and walking routes and public transport information in 63 countries and regions, excluding China, between Jan. 13 and April 13. Apple said it was able to provide this information by tabulating the number of requests made to Apple Maps for direction. Epidemiologists said to achieve that, contact between people must be reduced by 70% to 80%.

Some seniors weighing medically assisted death because of COVID-19

While Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, had emphatically denied the need for a blanket DNR (do-not-resuscitate order) for coronavirus patients, the issue remains alive. Not-for-profit organization Dying with Dignity (DWD) Canada has seen an uptick in calls from Canadians, wanting to know if medical assistance in dying (MAID) will be available if they end up hospitalized with COVID-19. "In the situation of COVID, I would not want to go on a ventilator because I wouldn't be coming off anyways. I just don't care to go down that route", said 71-year-old Liz Richenbach. But the head of DWD Canada says if a senior is fearful about a potentially unpleasant death from COVID-19, applying for assisted dying isn't the solution. "We're not advocating that people go out and complete a MAID process in preparation. There is no ability for an advance request at this point in time," said Helen Long, CEO of DWD Canada. Under Canada's assisted dying law, MAID is available to Canadians over the age of 18 who have an illness, disease or disability that is serious and incurable. The disease must be in an "advanced state of irreversible decline in capability" and cause "intolerable" physical and psychological suffering.

Big Tech steps in with $1bn rescue funds as governments fall short

“During the 2008 Lehman shock, private companies almost never moved toward establishing funds like we see now," said Kotaro Kuwazu, executive fellow at the Nomura Research Institute. Tech giants are being compelled to protect the suppliers, clients and other players that make their business models possible. In China, Alibaba set up a 1 billion yuan ($141 million) fund to support farmers. Tencent Holdings, the internet services giant, said in late March it would establish a $100 million fund to aid medical staff. Across the Pacific, U.S.-based Google in late March announced it would roll out a $200 million investment fund that will aid financial institutions and nongovernmental organizations that help small businesses. Netflix is also putting up $100 million to support content creators who are out of work. In Japan, Sony set up a $100 million fund to support musicians and artists involved in filmmaking. In addition, Sony is injecting 1 billion yen ($9.3 million) into M3, a medical data service provider based in Tokyo. The funds will be used to develop AI for diagnosing pneumonia from CT scans, and to provide free online lectures for medical professionals.

Coronavirus creates biggest economic uncertainty in decades

The global economic outlook is the murkiest in modern history, with uncertainty over the coronavirus outbreak’s ultimate impact causing wild divergences between analysts’ forecasts.The dispersion in macroeconomic estimates is the greatest since at least the 1960s, according to Bank of America. Quoting Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, B of A’s analysts said: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” However, governments and central banks have gone to extraordinary lengths to reduce the economic damage. “The key lesson from 1929 and 2008 is that big, fast policy action is essential to avoid [a] depression,” the bank said in a report. “Targeted’ measures stink of miserly austerity; only indiscriminate, abundant largesse can ‘flatten the curve’ of personal and corporate bankruptcies.”

ECB pushes for Eurozone bad bank to clean up soured loans

European Central Bank officials have held high-level talks with counterparts in Brussels about creating a eurozone bad bank to remove billions of euros in toxic debts from lenders’ balance sheets. The plan to deal with debts left over from the 2008 financial crisis is being pushed by senior ECB officials, who worry the coronavirus pandemic will trigger another surge in non-performing loans (NPLs) that risks clogging up banks’ lending capacity at a critical time. But the idea faces stiff opposition within the European Commission, where officials are reluctant to waive EU rules requiring state aid for banks to be provided only after a resolution process imposes losses on their shareholders and bondholders. Spain, Ireland and Germany all set up state-backed bad banks after the 2008 financial crisis to deal with sudden increases in toxic bank debt. But since then, the EU has introduced the bank recovery and resolution directive, which restricts governments from setting up bad banks except as part of an official resolution process.

In wake of coronavirus can China keep its trade deal promise to US?

The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic may prevent the world’s largest consumer of soybeans from meeting its trade deal promise to buy US$40 billion to US$50 billion worth of agricultural products from the US. China has been stocking up on beans from Brazil – America’s chief competitor in the soybean market – which have become far cheaper in the economic turbulence caused by the pandemic. China’s purchases of Brazilian soybeans hit a record 11.6 million tonnes in March, while purchases of American beans remained low, with just 12.6 million tonnes ordered so far for the entire year, according to the US Department of Agriculture. China is still struggling to revitalise its pig population after African swine fever killed about 60 per cent of its hogs. While the herd is slowly being replenished, future demand for soybeans – the main ingredient in their feed – is still likely to be weak.

Turkish Central bank, foreign counterparts talk swaps

The Central Bank of Turkey (CBRT) is in contact with its global counterparts to establish new swap agreements amid the coronavirus pandemic, the bank governor said on April 19. Central Bank Governor Murat Uysal highlighted a number of steps in an interview with Anadolu Agency. First, we aim to provide banks with flexibility in Turkish lira and foreign exchange liquidity management and thus enhance predictability. Secondly, we try to secure an uninterrupted flow of credit to the hardest-hit corporate sector. Our third goal is to support the cash flow of exporting firms through rediscount credits. Lastly, to strengthen the monetary transmission mechanism, we took a number of steps to prop up the Primary Dealership system and the liquidity in the Government Domestic Debt Securities (GDDS) market and to preserve market depth. Due to the COVID19-induced uncertainty and economic agents shifting to liquid assets, we have seen reduced depth for GDDS transactions. In addition, to have deep capital markets and offer banks that bring high-quality collaterals access to a variety of liquidity facilities, we decided to transfer asset-backed securities and mortgage-backed securities into the collateral pool.

Renewable energy and retrofits touted as job-creating alternative to oil sector devastation

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $1.7 billion to clean up orphan oil wells, in a move that could create up to 5,000 jobs in Alberta alone. He also announced new money for methane reduction from the oil and gas industry, which will help Canada meet its international commitment to reduce methane emissions as well as fostering environmental innovation. Martin Boucher, of the University of Saskatchewan's Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy who teaches energy transition policy, said this approach will provide far more jobs per dollar invested than investing in the oil industry. He said shifting even a small percentage of the investment and government support currently going to the oil industry would make a big difference. It could begin with more energy-efficient retrofits of homes and businesses – better windows or thicker insulation, he said. Most of this work would be labour-intensive and done by local contractors and businesses. Profits would stay in the community and homeowners would benefit from lower fuel bills.

Coronavirus costs won't blow hole in German budget, minister says

Germany will be able to rein in the debt incurred to manage the coronavirus pandemic if the economy improves in the second half of the year, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said in an interview, published on April 19. Scholz did not rule out the possibility of incurring additional debt beyond €156 billion ($169 billion) that was approved by the German parliament in late March, but he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that might not be necessary "if we manage to move the economic curve upwards again in the second half of the year."Still, he added, it's "far too early to give the all-clear" despite the decreasing infection rate. The parliament raised Germany's debt ceiling, allowing the federal government to borrow around €100 billion more than would have otherwise been permitted to fight the crisis and lessen the impact on workers and businesses in Germany. The new spending was aimed at funding the country's health care and helping companies at risk of defaulting on their loans. Scholz also said top earners may face higher taxes after the crisis, to balance out the high level of state support made possible by the country's social welfare system. But Economic Affairs Minister Peter Altmaier rejected the call for higher taxes.

Chinese universities expected to enroll 100,000 doctoral students in 2020

Chinese universities will admit more doctoral students for 2020 to meet a target of 100,000 set by the Ministry of Education (MOE). Admissions policies unveiled by some universities showed that they will expand doctoral programs compared with last year. Shanghai Jiaotong University is expected to enroll around 2,500 doctoral students for 2020, 300 more than that of 2019. Renmin University of China opens around 1,000 slots for 131 doctoral programs this year, compared with 940 slots for 130 doctoral programs last year. The universities with expanded doctoral programs also include Nankai University, Southeast University, Henan University, Guangzhou University and Airforce Medical University. In 2018, the MOE proposed a plan to increase the number of China's doctoral students to 100,000 in 2020.According to guidelines jointly issued by departments including the MOE in March, the country will speed up the training of postgraduates in the field of artificial intelligence, enrolling more doctoral students in particular.

Harbin outbreak threatens China’s coronavirus recovery

A cluster of coronavirus cases in China’s north-eastern city of Harbin has forced authorities to impose new lockdowns, shattering the country’s run of weeks of reporting near zero domestic transmissions. China first reported zero new local infections in mid-March and only a few cases were disclosed in subsequent weeks. In the past week, however, dozens of transmissions within the country have been confirmed, the vast majority in Heilongjiang province, which borders Russia. As of April 19, including non-symptomatic cases, Heilongjiang said it had 61 active cases of Covid-19 from local transmission, 54 of which were in Harbin, the provincial capital. Three planeloads of medical equipment were flown from Wuhan to Suifenhe this week, where a makeshift quarantine hospital with 600 beds has been built.

Every move to stigmatize China evokes our historical memory- Global Times

Why does every move to stigmatize China evoke our historical memory? This is because in the Chinese calendar cycle, the year 2020 is the "Year of the Gengzi," which occurs every 60 years. What happened to China during the "Year of the Gengzi" in 1900? The Eight Nation Alliance - you can check which eight countries, if your history book is reliable - invaded China and they were caught burning and looting in Beijing. As if that was not enough, the very next year they had the temerity to demand huge compensation from China. Now, 120 years later, in this "Year of the Gengzi," when the descendants of some of the Eight Nation Alliance shamelessly demand compensation, they evoke our historical memory of humiliation. Many Chinese netizens have responded strongly: "They want compensation? If they want to get even with China, let us start from the damage China suffered since the first Opium War in 1840!"

Turkey's Covid-19 cases overtake Iran to become highest in Middle East

Turkey's confirmed coronavirus cases have increased to 82,329, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on April 18, overtaking neighbouring Iran for the first time to register the highest total in the Middle East. An increase of 3,783 cases in the last 24 hours also pushed Turkey's confirmed tally within a few hundred of China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged. Koca said 121 more people have died, taking the death toll to 1,890. A total of 10,453 people have recovered from coronavirus so far, and the number of tests carried out over the past 24 hours came to 40,520, the minister said. The Interior Ministry also said it was extending restrictions on travel between 31 cities for a further 15 days starting at midnight on April 18.

Russia tries again to win UN approval for virus resolution

Russia is trying again to win U.N. General Assembly approval for a resolution on the coronavirus pandemic, dropping a call to end unilateral sanctions without U.N. Security Council approval but still calling for an end to protectionist practices. The 193-member world body has until noon EDT on April 22 to consider the revised Russian draft resolution, which is called a "Declaration of solidarity of the United Nations in the face of the challenges posed by the coronavirus disease." The General Assembly instituted new voting rules because it isn't holding meetings as a result of the pandemic. Normally, assembly resolutions are adopted by majority votes or by consensus, but now if a single country objects a resolution is defeated. The revised Russian draft resolution, which was sent to member states on April 17 by General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, significantly increases the number of co-sponsors to about 30, drops a call to end trade wars, and adds a number of new provisions. Security Council’s five permanent members, who have been divided on how to address the pandemic, are discussing a French-drafted resolution while its 10 elected members have their own draft. Diplomats said discussions have started on merging the rival texts.

Court suspends lockdown in Malawi

On April 17, Malawi’s high court ordered a seven-day suspension after the government’s planned three-week lockdown was challenged by the Human Rights Defenders Coalition, a civil society group. The ruling, the first successful legal challenge to the concept of a lockdown in Africa, adds to a growing debate on the continent with 1.2 billion people about the trade-offs between shutting down economic activity and saving lives. “We are not against the fight against pandemic,” the rights group said. “But we see gaps which the government needs to rectify,” it said, adding that measures needed to be taken to prevent hunger when large food markets were closed. Malawi has recorded only 17 cases of the virus with two deaths, but the southern African country of 18m people is one of the most densely populated and poorest in the region, leading to concern that the virus could quickly spread.

UN sets Ethiopia air hub for Africa virus response

The UN on April 14 established an air hub in Addis Ababa to distribute the lifesaving supplies across the African continent. The joint program, which includes the Ethiopian government, the WHO and the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, was launched at the Ethiopian Cargo and Logistics Services, a division of Ethiopian Airlines, at Bole International Airport.

Anti-Netanyahu rally draws thousands under coronavirus curbs

Wearing face masks, waving black flags and keeping two yards apart, thousands of Israelis demonstrated against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under strict coronavirus restrictions on April 19. Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, is under criminal indictment in three corruption cases. He is also negotiating a power-sharing deal with his rival Benny Gantz to form a coalition government that would end a year of political deadlock after three inconclusive elections. Demonstrations are allowed under Israel’s coronavirus restrictions, as long as participants maintain distance from each other and wear face masks. Under the banner of “Save the Democracy,” protesters called on Gantz’s Blue and White party not to join in a coalition led by a premier charged with corruption. A Reuter’s cameraman estimated that a few thousand demonstrators attended the rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Israeli media put the figure at about 2,000 people. Israel has reported more than 13,000 coronavirus cases and 172 deaths.

Saudi grand mufti: Ramadan, Eid prayers to be done at home

Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, the highest religious authority in the kingdom, has said prayers during Ramadan and the subsequent Eid al-Fitr festival should be performed at home if the coronavirus outbreak continues, according to a Saudi newspaper. "Ramadan's Taraweeh [evening] prayer can be performed at home if it cannot be performed at mosques due to the preventive measures taken to fight the spread of coronavirus," Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh said in response to a question, adding that the same applies for Eid prayers, Okaz newspaper reported on April 17. Saudi Arabia in mid-March stopped people performing their five daily prayers and the weekly Friday prayer inside mosques as part of efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus. On April 16, Prophet Muhammad's mosque in Medina said it was banning events which dispense evening meals to those in need during Ramadan to break their daily fast.

Hong Kong police detain veteran democracy activists in raids

Hong Kong police arrested 15 activists, including veteran politicians, a publishing tycoon and senior barristers, in raids on April 18 in the biggest crackdown on the city's pro-democracy movement since the outbreak of mass protests last year. Among those detained on charges of illegal assembly were Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, 81, millionaire publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai, 71, and former lawmaker and barrister Margaret Ng, 72, according to media and political sources. In all, one serving and nine former legislators were arrested, including veteran activists Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum. April 18's arrests come after several months of relative calm amid a partial coronavirus lockdown but as Chinese and city government officials launch a new push for tougher national security laws for the city. A previous attempt to draft a national security law for Hong Kong, known as Article 23, was met with mass protests in 2003 and abandoned.

Australia demands coronavirus enquiry, adding to pressure on China

Australia on April 19 added to growing pressure on China over its handling of the novel coronavirus, questioning its transparency and demanding an international investigation into the origins of the virus and how it spread. Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, said her concern about China’s transparency was at a “a very high point”. “The issues around the coronavirus are issues for independent review, and I think that it is important that we do that,” Payne told ABC television. “In fact, Australia will absolutely insist on that.”

Dozens of workers in Afghanistan’s presidential palace test positive

At least 40 staff members in Afghanistan’s presidential palace in Kabul have tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Afghan officials said on April 19, forcing President Ashraf Ghani to self-isolate and attend events via video conference. There is no evidence that President Ghani himself is infected, and it was not known whether he has been tested. But an official at the palace said that most of the 40 people who tested positive work for the administrative wing of the president’s office, the national security council and the office of Ghani’s chief of staff. A second senior official confirmed that dozens had tested positive after hundreds of palace workers were tested more than a week ago. Those with confirmed infections were sent into quarantine. Ghani, 70, who lost much of his stomach to cancer decades ago, has kept himself isolated in recent weeks, appearing in person only at some events and attending most of his engagements via video conference.

Taiwan sees spike in COVID-19 cases due to navy outbreak

Taiwan's health authorities on April 19 said that 21 additional sailors of a navy fleet have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The Central Epidemic Command Centre announced the previous day that three sailors of the three-ship fleet were confirmed as infected. More than 700 members of the fleet, which returned this month from a goodwill mission to the Pacific island state of Palau, have been quarantined. Navy Command Headquarters Chief of Staff Vice Adm. Mei Chia-shu apologized for the outbreak, while President Tsai Ing-wen expressed regret.Tsai welcomed the friendship flotilla when it returned to base in Kaohsiung on April 9. The Presidential Office said Tsai only waved from the shore and did not have any contact with personnel of the ships. The centre said more investigation is needed to determine exactly where the infection started, while the Defense Ministry is organizing a task force to look into the matter. The latest cases bring Taiwan's total tally of confirmed infections to 420, including six deaths.

How does Switzerland plan to ease the coronavirus lockdown?

The federal government announced on April 16 an easing in three steps of measures aimed at combatting the pandemic. In the first phase, which will begin on April 27, hair salons, physiotherapists, hospital outpatient services, medical and dental offices, florists, DIY shops and garden centres will re-open with precautionary measures in place. This may include wearing protective face masks. Two days after this first phase is slated to begin, the government will make a decision on whether to proceed with the second phase, which would begin on May 11. Schools for children of compulsory-school age would re-open, along with all shops and markets. A third phase would start on June 8 and see the re-opening of upper secondary and vocational schools, plus universities and other higher education institutions. Further decisions on this phase, including the possible lifting of bans on entertainment and leisure facilities, such as museums and libraries, will be taken at the end of May. The government will decide at a future sitting of the Federal Council when to allow large-scale events to take place again. High-risk persons can also refuse to work if they consider the risk to be too high and be entitled to leave with pay.

For Further Reading:
  1. New York Times: Antibody Test, Seen as Key to Reopening Country, Does Not Yet Deliver,
  2. CBC News: Ventilators are being overused on COVID-19 patients, world-renowned critical care specialist says,
  3. Nikkei Asian Review: Manila and Mumbai beat Tokyo at social distancing, Apple data shows,
  4. CBC News: 'I choose to be in control': Some seniors weighing medically assisted death because of COVID-19,
  5. Nikkei Asian Review: Big Tech steps in with $1bn rescue funds as governments fall short,
  6. Financial Times: Coronavirus creates biggest economic uncertainty in decades,
  7. Financial Times: ECB pushes for eurozone bad bank to clean up soured loans,
  8. SCMP: In wake of coronavirus can China keep its trade deal promise to US?,
  9. Anadolu Agency: Turkish Central bank, foreign counterparts talk swaps,
  10. CBC News: Renewable energy, retrofits touted as job-creating alternative to oil sector devastation,
  11. Deutsche Welle: Coronavirus costs won't blow hole in German budget, minister says,
  12. China Daily: Chinese universities expected to enroll 100,000 doctoral students in 2020,
  13. Financial Times: Harbin outbreak threatens China’s coronavirus recovery,
  14. Global Times: Every move to stigmatize China evokes our historical memory,
  15. France 24: Turkey's Covid-19 cases overtake Iran to become highest in Middle East,
  16. Mainichi:Russia tries again to win UN approval for virus resolution,
  17. Financial Times: Court suspends lockdown in Malawi,
  18. China Daily: UN sets Ethiopia air hub for Africa virus response,
  19. Reuters:Anti-Netanyahu rally draws thousands under coronavirus curbs,
  20. Al Jazeera:Saudi grand mufti: Ramadan, Eid prayers to be done at home,
  21. Nikkei Asian Review:Hong Kong police detain veteran democracy activists in raids,
  22. Reuters:Australia demands coronavirus enquiry, adding to pressure on China,
  23. New York Times:Dozens of workers in Afghanistan’s presidential palace test positive,
  24. Mainichi:Taiwan sees spike in COVID-19 cases due to navy outbreak,
  25. Swiss Info: How does Switzerland plan to ease the coronavirus lockdown?,

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