COVID-19 International Developments: Daily Scan, April 23, 2020
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF
US DOD Starts Tiered COVID-19 Testing Process to Ensure Safety

Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten and Deputy Defence Secretary David L. Norquist described the four-tiered system and all other aspects of DOD's support to civilian agencies against coronavirus during a Pentagon news conference on April 22. The new system means the department is moving from a diagnostic focus to a diagnostic-plus-screening focus, the General said, noting that DOD now has the means to expand testing to a wider military population. The tiered focus gives priority to the highest-risk forces and will ensure strategic mission assurance, he added. Tier 1 is testing for those involved in critical national capabilities such as strategic deterrence or nuclear deterrence, Hyten said. Tier 2 will test fielded forces around the world. Tier 3 encompasses forces being forward deployed or those redeploying, and Tier 4 is for all other forces. The military has already started testing those service members in Tier 1, the General said, but he pointed out that testing is not a solution. Service members still must engage in social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and all other recommendations of medical officials.

WHO chief brushes off resignation calls, appeals for US aid

A group of Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives last week suggested that Trump should condition any voluntary U.S. contributions to the WHO this year on Tedros' resignation. Asked about whether he was considering that, Tedros said: "I will continue to work day and night because this is a blessed work, actually, and responsibility saving lives, and I will focus on that." Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO's emergencies chief, said the U.S. pause would impact core agency activities like child immunizations, efforts to eradicate polio, and "essential health services and trauma management in some of the most vulnerable populations in the world." At a news conference in Washington on April 22, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new tranche of U.S. assistance to specific countries, bringing the total of virus aid this year to more than $700 million. Other U.S. officials said the suspended money for the WHO would be used for the same purpose, just distributed to individual groups -- eliminating the agency as a conduit.

Oil Collapse and Covid-19 Create Toxic Geopolitical Stew

Iraq cannot afford to pay millions of workers and pensioners. Mexico’s grand plans to develop the country have been thrown into disarray. Ecuador is cutting government salaries, and Venezuela is on life support. Nigeria is seeking a nearly $7 billion emergency loan. The coronavirus pandemic and the collapse in oil prices it has caused have created a monstrous calamity for countries heavily reliant on oil production for their economic survival, and forced others to change policies that no longer make economic sense. While Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States — the biggest oil producers — have large financial cushions, the precipitous drop in demand because billions of people have been forced to stay home has upended everything. It was a possibility even veteran industry experts did not foresee. “No one imagined a crisis of this scope. This was in no scenario,” said Daniel Yergin, an expert on global energy and vice chairman of IHS Markit, a research firm.

First Coronavirus Deaths in U.S. Came Earlier Than Authorities Thought

A pair of newly reported deaths in California have challenged the longstanding timeline of the coronavirus pandemic, raising new questions about when and how the virus first arrived in the U.S. and the costs of the nation’s lack of preparation earlier in the winter. The first U.S. death from the coronavirus took place in early February, according to a county in the San Francisco Bay Area, nearly three weeks earlier than U.S. health authorities had previously realized. The infections in the two patients were confirmed by way of autopsy tissue samples that were sent to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention for analysis. The county coroner's office received the results on April 21, officials said. Wall Street Journal interviews with more than two dozen administration officials and others involved in the government’s coronavirus effort show that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar waited for weeks to brief the president on the threat, oversold his agency’s progress in the early days and didn’t coordinate effectively across the health-care divisions under his purview.

Trump signs immigration order featuring numerous exemptions

President Donald Trump claimed on April 22 that he had signed an executive order "temporarily suspending immigration into the United States." But experts say the order will merely delay the issuance of green cards for a minority of applicants. Trump said his move was necessary to help Americans find work in an economy ravaged by the coronavirus. "This will ensure that unemployed Americans of all backgrounds will be first in line for jobs as our economy reopens," he said. But the order includes a long list of exemptions, including for anyone who is currently in the country, those seeking entry to work as physicians and nurses, wealthy foreign investors, and the spouses and minor children of American citizens. The 60-day pause also leaves untouched the hundreds of thousands of temporary work and student visas the U.S. issues each year.

Lawsuits Target China for Coronavirus Damage

China is the target of a growing number of lawsuits filed in U.S. federal courts over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with businesses, individuals and now a state government seeking to hold Beijing liable for deaths and financial damages. Missouri this week became the first state to file suit, alleging that China misled the world about how easily the virus can spread, silenced doctors who tried to sound the alarm, failed to respond adequately to the threat and then hoarded crucial medical supplies.

Macron calls probe into coronavirus pandemic untimely, Pompeo says China ‘failed to report’ outbreak

French President Emmanuel Macron told Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison now is not the time for an international investigation into the coronavirus pandemic and that the urgency was to act in unison before looking for who was at fault, an Elysee official said on April 22. The President “agrees that there have been some issues at the start, but that the urgency is for cohesion, that it is no time to talk about this, while reaffirming the need for transparency for all players, not only the World Health Organization (WHO),” the official told Reuters. Berlin also confirmed that Chancellor Angela Merkel had spoken with Morrison on April 21. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on April 22 the US strongly believes that China’s leadership failed to report the outbreak of the new coronavirus to the WHO in a timely manner. Pompeo also accused Beijing of failing to report human-to-human transmission of the virus “for a month until it was in every province inside of China.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on April 22 it is inappropriate to put forward groundless accusations that the coronavirus causing Covid-19 was specifically created.

Manila protests Beijing’s sea claim & ‘weapon pointing’ at Philippines Navy ship

The Philippines has protested Beijing’s declaration that a Manila-claimed region in the disputed South China Sea is Chinese territory, and it’s aiming of weapons control radar at a Philippines navy ship. The country's Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted that two diplomatic protests were received by the Chinese Embassy in Manila late on April 22. China’s recent moves in the disputed waterway have been criticized by rival Southeast Asian claimant nations and by the US. Beijing has declared a section of Philippines-claimed territory to be part of its southernmost province of Hainan, Locsin said, adding that a “radar gun” was pointed at a Philippines Navy ship its own territorial waters. Locsin described the actions as “violations of international law and Philippine sovereignty.” China recently announced the establishment of two districts to administer two disputed groups of islands and reefs in the South China Sea to fortify its claim to virtually the entire waterway, AP said.

Pakistan’s Decision to allow mass prayers during Ramadan raises COVID-19 fears

The government’s decision to allow mass gatherings at mosques during Ramadan has triggered concerns among Pakistan’s health care professionals, many of whom warn it may jeopardize the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite their concerns, prayer time attendance is expected to be high, especially for evening prayers. Dr Qaiser Sajjad, secretary-general of Pakistan Medical Association (PMA), told Arab News, “The PMA is concerned about the situation. We are worried that virus cases could go up because of mass gatherings. We can only hope the people will follow precautionary measures.” He added that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had already warned that virus cases would likely rise by mid-May. “If the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madina can extend the suspension of prayers during Ramadan, why not Pakistan?” Sajjad asked, adding that social distancing and isolation have proven critical to slowing the spread of the disease.

Tracking Africa's coronavirus cases

More than two months after Egypt became the first country in Africa to confirm a coronavirus case, the outbreak appears to have reached almost every nation on the continent of 1.2 billion people. Of Africa's 54 countries, only two have yet to report a case of the virus: Comoros and Lesotho. As of April 19, the confirmed coronavirus death toll on the continent stood at 1,205, with fatalities including the former President of the Republic of the Congo Jacques Joachim Yhombi-Opango and Somalia's former Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein. There are 25,131 confirmed infections and 6,576 recoveries, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts warn fragile healthcare systems in many African countries could be overwhelmed in the face of a severe outbreak of COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Facing backlash, Saudis could reroute oil tankers headed for US

Around the world, at least one in every ten very large crude carriers (VLCCs)--each capable of holding 2 million barrels of oil--currently acts as a floating storage, oil officials from Saudi Arabia told The Wall Street Journal this week. Many of the super tankers carry Saudi crude, and some of it is not sold yet. As buying interest in the oil industry is currently only focused on available storage capacity, not on crude oil, the early Saudi plan to go after its rivals’ market shares with aggressive price discounts and a fleet of more oil is backfiring while a large part of the world is under lockdown, refiners slash run rates, and storage fills up. Saudi Arabia is considering rerouting millions of barrels of oil on board tankers sailing to the United States if President Donald Trump decides to block imports of crude from the kingdom, shipping and trade sources told Reuters news agency. Some 40 million barrels of Saudi oil are on their way to the US and due to arrive in the coming weeks, piling more pressure on markets already struggling to absorb a glut of stocks, according to shipping data and sources.

South Korean GDP shrinks 1.4% in first quarter, most since 2008

South Korea's economy contracted 1.4% in the first three months of 2020 from the previous quarter, marking the biggest drop since 2008 as the coronavirus pandemic battered the export-driven country. The Bank of Korea said on April 22 that gross domestic product shrank in the first quarter mainly due to a negative spill over from China, which shut down many of its economic activities in the period. Falling domestic demand also hurt the economy as the new infections peaked in the country in late February. The contraction compares with a 1.3% expansion in the final quarter of 2019. The announcement came a week after China, South Korea's largest export market, reported its first contraction in decades when its economy had shrunk 6.8% in the first quarter.

Hidden threat: Japan has only 2-week stockpile of LNG

The coronavirus outbreak has raised a new risk for Japan -- a potential cut-off of the crucial liquefied natural gas supply that would plunge large portions of the country into darkness. Because LNG is poorly suited for long-term storage, Japan only has a two-week stockpile. Yet, the country depends on the fuel for 40% of its electric power generation needs, and all of the LNG it uses is imported from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It takes about a month to ship the LNG from the Middle East to Japan. With shipments arriving constantly, a few missed shipments will not immediately signal a crisis. But an extended cut-off will spell trouble for the country. Japan's energy self-sufficiency stands at about 10%, well below the 40% for food. While some of Japan's nuclear plants have come back online, based on the strictest standards in the world, only three of the 10 electric power companies have been able to do so.

China struggles with sharp rise in unemployment

The Chinese economy has been pummelled by the health crisis, with gross domestic product falling 6.8 per cent in the first quarter, after a national lockdown brought the country to a standstill. Beijing has lifted restrictions on most regions in a bid to restart the economy. But some analysts say the country’s social safety net is not supporting the unemployed. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said last week that 2.3m people received jobless benefits in the first quarter of this year, the same as the previous quarter. Yet the nation’s official unemployment rate rose to 5.9 per cent, or 26m, in March from 5.2 per cent, or 23m, in December.

Remittance flows expected to plunge more than $100bn

Remittance flows around the world are set to plummet more than $100bn this year, as steep job losses across the world, would cause a 20 per cent decline in remittance flows to low and middle-income nations compared with last year, from a record $554bn to $445bn, a World Bank report stated on April 22. It would be the largest fall in recent history, and those most vulnerable to the decline include fragile states such as Somalia, Haiti and South Sudan, and small island nations such as Tonga, with remittances accounting for more than a third of gross domestic product in some. Larger countries including India, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, and the Philippines will also be hit as remittances have become a crucial source of external financing for them.

Industry executives consider plans to bring workers back

Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines have already aggressively advertised the precautions they are taking to lure back passengers, from fogging cabins with disinfectant to restricting food service to blocking out middle seats. But Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of low-cost carrier Ryanair, told the FT that the airline would not return to flying with middle seats empty. Volkswagen on April 22 said it had spent several weeks putting in place health and safety measures to protect the 3,800 people who work at the plant, which makes the Atlas sport-utility vehicle. Volkswagen stopped production at the plant on March 21 after state and local officials issued stay-at-home orders. General Motors, Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler have not yet called factory workers back, and continue to negotiate with the United Automobile Workers union over safety measures. Renault’s plant in France will initially have only about one-quarter of the work force report for duty to reduce the risk of infection, a spokeswoman said.

Canadian government unveils $9 billion in financial aid for students in response to COVID-19

The Canadian government has announced $9 billion dollars in aid for students who have been facing financial difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) program, students who have lost work or are unable to find employment will be eligible for payments of $1,250 a month from May to August, and may receive up to $1,750 if they are caring for a dependent or have a disability. However, international students do not qualify for the program, as only Canadian citizens and permanent residents are covered. Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough also said in a press conference on April 22 that part-time students in “certain circumstances” would qualify, such as if they had a disability, though the details are still to be decided.

Coronavirus hits global tourism hard

Lockdowns have brought the tourism sector grinding to a halt, the UN's World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) warning that the pandemic could see global international tourist arrivals down 20-30% this year. The European tourism industry alone is expected to see a financial loss of roughly €1 billion ($1.15 billion) per month, European Commissioner for Internal Markets Thierry Breton said. The coronavirus has shown how important China is for global tourism. Around 150 million Chinese travelled abroad in 2018 and spent $277 billion (€ 249 billion). This puts China far ahead of the USA.Of the approximately 150 million trips abroad made by Chinese people, a full 90% go to Asian countries. Chinese tourists have become a decisive economic factor there. However, because most airlines have discontinued their connections to China, the affluent guests from the People's Republic have largely stayed away.

European Central Bank agrees to accept ‘junk’ bonds to keep economies afloat

European Central Bank governors agreed on April 22 that banks could put up so-called “junk” bonds as collateral when borrowing from the Frankfurt institution, in case euro zone governments and firms see their credit ratings downgraded as they grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. The ECB has already taken a series of measures easing the requirements for collateral “to ensure that banks have sufficient assets that they can mobilise as collateral ... and to continue providing funding to the euro area economy,” the statement said.As well as massively expanding its so-called “quantitative easing” (QE) bond-buying programme to 1.1 trillion euros ($1.2 trillion) this year, the ECB is offering banks access to vast amounts of cash via low-interest loans. The aim is to keep credit flowing to the real economy to cushion the financial blow from coronavirus-fighting shutdowns. But in order to access that liquidity, banks must still put up collateral, often in the shape of government or other debt on their books.

Germany approves Covid-19 vaccine trial

The German biotech company BioNTech will become the first European business to proceed with clinical trials of a Covid-19 vaccine, after receiving regulatory approval for accelerated testing. The Mainz-based company, which has never produced a market-ready product, has been working on a vaccine since January and has tested an early version on mice. It will now test four variants of a prototype on 200 healthy volunteers aged between 18 and 55, with the aim of being able to manufacture a certified vaccine in less than a year. Depending on the outcome, thousands of volunteers, some with increased risk of severe Covid-19 symptoms, will be immunised in a second stage of trials. Prof Klaus Cichutek, the president of Germany’s Paul-Ehrlich-Institut, which oversees clinical trials in the country, said the first phase would take between three and five months. BioNTech, which has also secured a $135m investment from Shanghai-based Fosun to commercialise the product in China, said US approval was “expected shortly”. BioNTech is one of two German companies developing vaccines that use messenger RNA, which carries instructions for human cells to produce proteins that it is hoped will fight disease. CureVac, based in Tübingen, has also developed a vaccine and received €80m in backing from the European Commission, but is yet to receive regulatory approval for testing.

India Sees Coronavirus Threat to Fragile Population: Tigers

Indian officials have put the country’s 50 wild tiger reserves on high alert. The country is home to 2,967 wild tigers, roughly three-quarters of the world’s total remaining non-captive population. And the cats are known to suffer from respiratory ailments, such as rhinotracheitis. But the announcement that a captive 4-year-old tiger at New York’s Bronx Zoo had tested positive for the coronavirus — the first confirmed case of the virus in a big cat — intensified concerns. India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has advised wildlife wardens in all states with tigers to restrict the movement of people into national parks, sanctuaries and reserves. Tigers must also be observed for respiratory symptoms, such as nasal discharge, coughing or laboured breathing, the authority said. Personnel relocating tigers that have been in conflict with people or handling sick cats would also need to be tested for the virus before any interactions with the animals. India entered a nationwide lockdown on March 24, but many wildlife workers have remained on the job. At Kanha Tiger Reserve in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of rangers patrol the 362-square-mile area to protect the 90 endangered tigers estimated to live there.

What 5 Coronavirus Models Say the Next Month for the US Will Look Like?

The chart below includes five leading models’ predictions of U.S. coronavirus deaths through May 30, most of them standardized and compiled by a team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Most of the models shown above predict that the US is currently past or near the peak number of deaths for this wave of the epidemic, assuming current restrictions aren’t relaxed. But they estimate a range of total deaths — 60,000 to 100,000 — through May 23. However, good the modellers’ mathematical strategies may be, many of the descriptive facts about the virus are still unclear. Researchers aren’t sure about the rate at which people who become infected die, or about the rate of transmission to other people. They don’t know for sure how many people have already been infected and have some immunity to the disease — or how long that immunity will last. Even the count of coronavirus deaths itself is uncertain.

For Further Reading :
  1. US DOD: DOD Starts Tiered COVID-19 Testing Process to Ensure Safety,
  2. Mainichi: WHO chief brushes off resignation calls, appeals for US aid,
  3. New York Times: Oil Collapse and Covid-19 Create Toxic Geopolitical Stew,
  4. Wall Street Journal: First Coronavirus Deaths in U.S. Came Earlier Than Authorities Thought,
  5. Wall Street Journal: Health Chief’s Early Missteps Set Back Coronavirus Response,
  6. Wall Street Journal: Lawsuits Target China for Coronavirus Damage,
  7. Mainichi: Trump signs immigration order featuring numerous exemptions,
  8. RT: Macron calls probe into coronavirus pandemic untimely, Pompeo says China ‘failed to report’ outbreak,
  9. RT: Manila protests Beijing’s sea claim & ‘weapon pointing’ at Philippines navy ship,
  10. Arab News: Pakistan’s decision to allow mass prayers during Ramadan raises COVID-19 fears,
  11. Al Jazeera: Tracking Africa's coronavirus cases,
  12. Al Jazeera: Facing backlash, Saudis could reroute oil tankers headed for US,
  13. Nikkei Asian Review: South Korean GDP shrinks 1.4% in first quarter, most since 2008,
  14. Nikkei Asian Review: Hidden threat: Japan has only 2-week stockpile of LNG,
  15. Financial Times: China struggles with sharp rise in unemployment,
  16. Financial Times: Remittance flows expected to plunge more than $100bn,
  17. New York Times: Industry executives consider plans to bring workers back,
  18. The Varsity: Federal government unveils $9 billion in financial aid for students in response to COVID-19,
  19. Deutsche Welle: Czechs float 'corona corridor' lifeline for Croatian tourism,
  20. Deutsche Welle: Coronavirus hits global tourism hard,
  21. France 24: European Central Bank agrees to accept ‘junk’ bonds to keep economies afloat,
  22. Financial Times: Germany approves Covid-19 vaccine trial,
  23. New York Times: India Sees Coronavirus Threat to Fragile Population: Tigers,
  24. New York Times: What 5 Coronavirus Models Say the Next Month Will Look Like,

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