COVID-19 International Developments: Daily Scan, April 27, 2020
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF
IMF, WTO Urge Caution on Export Restrictions

The International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization warned on April 24 that export restrictions on medical supplies and food "can be dangerously counterproductive" as countries grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. In a joint statement urging caution on such restrictions, the two organizations also said they were concerned by the decline of trade financing needed to ensure that food and medical supply imports get to the countries that need them most. The IMF and WTO said export restrictions "disrupt supply chains, depress production, and misdirect scarce, critical products and workers away from where they are most needed. Other governments counter with their own restrictions." In addition, it said, critical workers for agricultural production are not able to move while new cropping seasons are starting. "We urge governments to address these challenges in a safe and proportionate manner," it underlined.

US states move to reopen as coronavirus job losses mount

The Trump administration is talking up the chance of a summer rebound in the US as a clutch of state governors take steps to reopen their economies to stem catastrophic job losses caused by coronavirus lockdowns. “As we begin to reopen the economy in May and June, you’re going to see the economy really bounce back in July, August, September,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Fox News on April 26. The US has recorded more than 940,000 cases of coronavirus and more than 54,000 deaths. Advice from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is to lift restrictions only once the state and regional hospitalisation rate has recorded a decline for 14 days in a row. Kevin Hassett, senior economic adviser to Donald Trump, formerly chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said US job losses far outstripped levels seen in the 2008 financial crisis. “During the Great Recession, remember that was a financial crisis around 2008, that we lost 8.7m jobs and the whole thing. Right now, we’re losing that many jobs about every 10 days,” he said.

Leaders across Europe prepare to ease lockdown

The Spanish, French and Italian governments will outline detailed plans this week to ease their lockdowns, as Europe seeks an exit route from the economically devastating measures brought in to contain Covid-19. Some of the plans rely on new technology — such as tracing apps — a rapid increase in testing capabilities, and the provision of face masks, which have been in short supply. The Spanish government set out its criteria on April 26 for a slow return to normal life, as children were allowed on the streets for the first time in six weeks. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe confirmed on April 26 that he would present the government’s exit strategy on April 28, with a focus on six themes: “health (including masks, testing and isolation), school, work, shops, transport and gatherings”. Giuseppe Conte, Italian prime minister, said details of his government’s plan to allow a large number of companies to reopen from May 4 would be made public at the start of next week “at the latest”. Germany, which began reopening shops last week, will make mask-wearing compulsory on public transport and in supermarkets from April 27.

Is China’s job market facing risk of social instability?

In the epic global struggle to recover from the coronavirus crisis, many observers agree that in China, unemployment has become the most pressing issue - more pressing than a historic 6.8 per cent contraction in GDP - that needs to be dealt with urgently as it pertains to the country's economic and social stability. A record number of 8.74 million graduates will enter the job market this year, official data shows. Factoring in around 300,000 students from overseas and unemployed graduates from the year before, the total figure could reach as much as 9 million, about the equivalent of the entire population of Israel. New graduates make up about 60 percent of China's total new labour population of 15 million each year, highlighting the enormity of the country's challenge in tackling rising unemployment. Young graduates are among the most vibrant group in social and economic development and a crucial factor of social stability, as some foreign media have been quick to highlight. In an article in March, the New York Times suggested young Chinese had been "content to relinquish political freedoms" as long as the Communist Party of China provided jobs and upward mobility. That could change with the coronavirus, the article suggested.

China Seeks to Ease Medical Goods Shipment Delays with New Rule

China offered a new route for producers of medical goods to obtain export approval, a move that could help ease recent shipment delays of face masks, test kits and other critical medical equipment to fight coronavirus to the U.S. and other countries. Makers of medical gear in China that met the national standards of their foreign buyer can apply for export approval through an industry association, Chinese authorities said on April 26. This would allow manufacturers to bypass an earlier rule that required exporters to obtain a certification from Chinese medical-product regulators. The policy, introduced on March 31 to boost quality control of Chinese medical-supplies exports, led to a significant shipment bottleneck in items including masks, ventilators, surgical gowns and testing reagents, essential for medical workers world-wide to fight the coronavirus pandemic. China’s export rules weren’t meant to restrict exports of items required to fight the pandemic, but to help improve quality control of those products, said Li Xingqian, a director at the Ministry of Commerce.

EU urged to attach 'green strings' to members' cash handouts

The European Union is facing pressure from environmentalists and legislators to attach conditions to state aid packages to protect climate goals, as countries pump cash into ailing firms and polluting sectors during the coronavirus pandemic. So far, the Commission, the bloc's executive branch, has not attached "green strings" to its approvals of aid from national budgets, as the health crisis takes priority. The EU agreed on April 23 to build a trillion-euro ($1.08 trillion) recovery fund to revive economies ravaged by the pandemic and has so far signed off on state aid worth 1.8 trillion euros ($1.94 trillion). Green advocates say they want guarantees that any upcoming state aid will uphold the bloc's climate ambitions. Pascal Canfin, a French EU legislator who chairs the European Parliament's environment committee, said EU approvals must be tied to a pledge from companies that within six months of receiving state aid, they will produce a plan to shift their business towards alignment with the global Paris Agreement on fighting climate change.

Foreign workers and students vulnerable as virus-hit Japan firms axe staff

When a foreign worker who entered Japan on a working visa loses a job, they need to find another job within three months or provide evidence that they are seeking a job or their residence status may be revoked. Foreign students can only stay in Japan for job hunting for up to a year after graduation. In both cases, however, they will now be looking for jobs under unstable circumstances. According to the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry, a record of about 1.66 million foreign workers were in Japan as of the end of October. Foreign students who stay on to work in Japan after graduation are also on the rise, with about 26,000 foreign students in 2018 switching to residence permits that would allow them to work, according to the Immigration Services Agency. Amid the dire prospects for foreign workers, Crobo, the staffing agency, has made its mediation fee for registered companies free of charge until May 15 to support job hunting by foreign workers.

Greece preparing new tourism rules with EU in wake of coronavirus

Global tourism has been among the hardest hit industries by the public health emergency, impacting the lives of some 75 million people employed in an industry brought to a near standstill by travel bans and closed borders. In Greece, where tourism accounts for 20% of GDP and provides one in five jobs, the economy is expected to suffer an immense blow – contracting by as much as 10% - just as it was emerging from its worst crisis in recent times. Travel will take place only under “specific new rules”, Greece’s tourism minister has said as he prepares to propose ways of salvaging the sector with his EU counterparts in the era of Covid-19 on April 27. How the regulations will work, and what they will look like, in Europe at least, will be the focus of talks between EU tourism ministers on April 28. Health and safety measures, including Covid-19 immunity certificates, will be high on the agenda. The possibility of passengers being subject to temperature checks and pre-flight blood tests is also likely to be raised.

Fewer Products, Localized Production—Companies Seek Supply-Chain Solutions

Companies have spent much of 2020 racing to shore up supply chains as the coronavirus shut down much of the world, but business leaders say they expect problems to remain even as countries start to reopen their economies. As the pandemic took hold, companies hunted for new vendors for high-demand items, stocked up on raw materials and simplified manufacturing to focus on making their most-important products, executives said. Others boosted inventories of their finished goods or moved to help smaller suppliers.

German start-up in global demand with anti-virus escalators

Tanja Nickel and Katharina Obladen were still in high school when they patented an idea to disinfect escalator handrails using UV light. A decade later, their small German start-up UVIS can barely keep up with orders from around the world for their coronavirus-killing escalators and coatings for supermarket trolleys and elevator buttons. “Everybody wants it done yesterday,” Obladen, 28, told AFP at the company’s workshop in central Cologne. “The pandemic has made businesses realize they need to invest in hygiene precautions for staff and customers. It’s gone from nice-to-have to must-have.” As Germany begins to relax some lockdown restrictions, the start-up’s five-person team has been inundated with requests from shops, offices and cafes eager to reopen to a public newly aware of the health risks lurking in shared spaces. Inspired by New York City’s use of ultraviolet radiation to sterilize drinking water, they designed a UV light box that can be built into escalators to disinfect handrails, with the radiation destroying the DNA of disease-causing micro-organisms.

Japanese startups rush to develop service robots for medical use

Service robots have been thrust into the spotlight as reliable partners to keep people safe amid the public health crisis. Transportation, disinfection and other work is increasingly handled by service robots to help reduce human contact and support creaking medical care systems in many countries. These machines replace workers and have grown even smarter with artificial intelligence. The global service robot market has the potential to be worth a total of 4 trillion yen (about $37 billion) within the next several years. Companies in the U.S., China, Japan and elsewhere are rushing to commercialize service robots. But it is China that appears to be taking the lead in the increasingly fierce competition to provide service robots amid the pandemic, with robot development already advanced in the country before the outbreak. A hospital in Shenzhen has completely switched to AI-equipped robots to check visitors' temperatures and offer reception services.

Coronavirus fatalities surpass 200,000

The global death toll of the novel coronavirus pandemic soared past the grim 200,000 milestone on April 26, as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned against "immunity passports" for recovered patients, seen as a possible tool for countries preparing to reopen their economies. Total cases around the world rose to 2.91 million and deaths passed the 200,000 mark, doubling since April 10, according to an AFP tally. Europe, the hardest-hit region, has recorded 122,171 coronavirus deaths.

Military spending surged to US$1.9 trillion in 2019, biggest increase in a decade

The world’s nations spent a combined US$1.9 trillion on their militaries in 2019, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Compared to 2018, that represented an annual growth of 3.6 per cent in military spending, the largest spending growth since 2010. “Military spending has reached the highest point since the end of the Cold War,” Nan Tian, a researcher at SIPRI, told AFP. Driving the increase are the world’s largest spenders, headed by the US, which spent US$732 billion in 2019, a 5.3 per cent increase, alone accounting for 38 per cent of global spending. For the first time, two Asian countries were among the top three, with China and India spending an estimated US$261 billion (up 5.1 per cent) and US$71.1 billion (up 6.8 per cent) respectively. The world’s top five spenders, which also included Russia and Saudi Arabia, together accounted for over 60 per cent of total military expenditure. According to SIPRI, other notable developments included Germany, which increased spending by 10 per cent in 2019 to US$49.3 billion, the largest percentage increase of all the top 15 spenders.

China warned EU 3 times over virus propaganda report

China complained to the EU at least three times and warned bilateral relations would be hit should the bloc publicly accuse it of spreading coronavirus crisis propaganda, according to European officials. The warnings from Beijing came after the news organisation Politico reported excerpts from the EU disinformation report on April 21. One complaint was made at political counsellor level to the EU diplomatic service’s headquarters in Brussels and two by the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing, European officials said. The diplomatic pressure highlights China’s strong pushback against accusations from Europe that it is attempting to use the health emergency to sow division and make strategic gains. The EU published some elements of the internal disinformation report in a toned-down form late on April 24, after a behind-the-scenes row between officials over what to include.

Coronavirus: Are China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomats doing more harm than good?

In recent weeks, some of China’s most seasoned ambassadors have found themselves embroiled in a war of words with their host countries. But rather than adopting the traditional approach of managing tensions through diplomatic protocols, as the storms have raged, many of them have risen to the call of Chinese President Xi Jinping and displayed their “fighting spirit”, often at the expense of the country’s global image, pundits say. Last week alone, at least seven Chinese ambassadors – to France, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and the African Union – were summoned by their hosts to answer charges ranging from spreading rumours and misinformation to the “racist mistreatment” of Africans in the south China city of Guangzhou. The clashes correspond with a shift in gear in the wider coronavirus blame game, with ever more countries – Germany, France, Britain, Australia and Canada among them – joining the United States in pressing Beijing for greater transparency regarding its initial cover-ups and other missteps.

White House aiming for Trump pivot from virus to economy

After two months of frantic response to the coronavirus, the White House is planning to shift President Donald Trump's public focus to the burgeoning efforts aimed at easing the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. Days after he publicly mused that scientists should explore the injection of toxic disinfectants as a potential virus cure, Trump has now rejected the utility of his daily task force briefings, where he has time and again clashed with scientific experts. Trump's aides are aiming to move the president onto more familiar -- and safer, they hope -- ground: talking up the economy, in tighter controlled settings. New Republican Party polling shows Trump's path to a second term depends on the public's perception of how quickly the economy rebounds from the state-by-state shutdowns meant to slow the spread of the virus. Trump last left the White House grounds a month ago and plans are being drawn up for a limited schedule of travel within the next few weeks, aide said. It would be a symbolic show that the nation is beginning to reopen.

US calls on Afghans to set aside disputes, focus on virus

"The well-being of the Afghan people and the country itself depend on all parties devoting their full energies to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the shared enemy of all," Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted early on April 26. He urged the government and the Taliban to carry out a prisoner exchange that was part of the U.S.-Taliban peace agreement signed in February. The agreement had called for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 government personnel held by the insurgents. To date, Ghani has released 550 detainees based on age, vulnerability to the virus and time served. The Taliban have not said if those are among the prisoners referred to in the agreement. The Taliban have freed 60 prisoners. Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labour Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said in a statement on April 26 that the insurgent group was living up to its side of the agreement, and that it was willing to negotiate a countrywide cease-fire in intra-Afghan talks. The Taliban have carried out 2,804 attacks since the agreement was signed, Jawed Faisal, spokesman for the National Security Adviser's office, said on April 25. Afghanistan has meanwhile reported 1,463 infections and 47 deaths from the new coronavirus.

Yemen’s southern separatists declare self-rule, putting Saudi-brokered 2019 peace deal in jeopardy

The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), which is based in the southern Yemeni port of Aden, declared a state of emergency and announced that from now on it will “self-govern” the territories it controls. The separatists accused the Saudi-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi of corruption and mismanagement. Hadi’s government said that the STC’s decision amounts to a “complete withdrawal” from the Saudi-brokered peace, which was signed in November 2019. Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hadhrami warned that the separatists will face “dangerous and catastrophic consequences.” The UAE and Saudi Arabia are the main forces in the military coalition fighting against the Shia Houthi rebels, which control Yemen’s capital, Sanaa and are aligned with Iran. The Houthis seized Sanaa in 2014, forcing Hadi to flee to Aden and then to Saudi Arabia.

Arab coalition releases Houthi tanker after 42 days

A tanker vessel belonging to Iran-backed Houthi rebels carrying 12,000 of tons of diesel fuel was released by the Saudi-led Arab coalition after 42 days, the rebels’ Al Masirah TV reported on April 26. The Houthis have accused the coalition of seizing 20 ships carrying oil and food that were allowed to operate by the UN. Despite the accusation, the coalition has not yet issued a statement on the matter. In previous statements, however, it accused the Houthis of making the mobility of ships and humanitarian work inoperable in the region.

UAE taking steps to gain control of Sudan's main port

Sudan's transitional government is taking steps to hand over control of its principal seaport to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a move that incensed port workers who say they will protest privatisation of the country's national terminal. Officials in Sudan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera the government was in the process of securing a deal with UAE giant Dubai Ports World (DP World). The agreement would allow the logistics company to run the South Port Container Terminal at Port Sudan. It is not the first time the UAE has set its eyes on ports on the African continent. It has been working to control terminals in the Horn of Africa in recent years, with reports that DP World secured contracts in Somalia and Djibouti.

Coronavirus: India clears air with Arab world

Prime Minister Modi has spoken to leaders in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman as well as Palestine, Jordan and Egypt in recent weeks. While 'Think West' has been the cornerstone of the business end of the conversations, Modi has frontally allayed any concerns over the communal issue and stressed the need for coordinated and collaborative efforts to combat Covid-19, not necessarily in that order. Dr S Jaishankar has echoed his boss and had extensive talks with foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Palestine and Qatar last week. He had earlier spoken to foreign ministers of Bahrain, Kuwait and Algeria. Many Gulf countries have requested for essential medicines like hydroxychloroquine and paracetamol to support their national effort and India's huge and inexpensive pharma sector will supply medicines including hydroxychloroquine to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Egypt and Palestine. At the request of Kuwait, India has also deployed a rapid response team comprising doctors, nurses and paramedics to train and exchange best practices with local medical professionals.

High-seas energy fight off Malaysia draws U.S. and Chinese warships

Malaysia’s push to explore energy blocks off its coast has turned into a five-nation face-off involving U.S. and Chinese warships, raising the risk of a direct confrontation as broader tensions grow between the world’s biggest economies. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command confirmed on April 22 that three ships — the USS America, an amphibious assault ship; the USS Bunker Hill, a guided missile cruiser; and the USS Barry, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer — were operating in the South China Sea, without giving a precise location. They were joined by an Australian Anzac-class frigate on April 18, according to the U.S. 7th Fleet. Without a direct threat from the U.S., China has increasingly disrupted the efforts of Vietnam, the Philippines — and increasingly Malaysia — to exploit oil, gas and fishing resources off their shores. China claims about 80 percent of the South China Sea through its so-called “nine-dash line.

NK leader Kim Jong-un 'alive and well': Seoul

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is "alive and well", a top security adviser to the South's President Moon Jae-in said, downplaying rumours over Kim's health following his absence from a key anniversary. "Our government position is firm," said Moon's special adviser on national security Moon Chung-in, in an interview with CNN on April 26. "Kim Jong Un is alive and well." The adviser said that Kim had been staying in Wonsan ― a resort town in the country's east ― since April 13, adding: "No suspicious movements have so far been detected." Conjecture about Kim's health has grown since his conspicuous absence from the April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the North's founder ― the most important day in the country's political calendar. Daily NK, an online media outlet run mostly by North Korean defectors, has reported Kim was recovering after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure earlier this month.

China’s Top legislature's standing committee session stresses biosecurity

The Standing Committee of the 13th National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, started its 17th session on April 26, during which lawmakers reviewed a series of draft laws and law revisions regarding to the prevention and control of environmental pollution by solid waste, as well as bio-security. The draft law stipulates that national bio-security coordination mechanisms are composed of relevant government agencies, departments and military organs. To prevent and control infectious diseases as well as animal and plant epidemics, the draft law also made amendments to include monitoring and early warning systems, to demand relevant institutions gather, analyse and report relevant information, to make forecasts on emerging diseases, and epidemic trends. State Council departments and governments above the county-level should issue timely warnings to the public taking appropriate response and control measures. The draft law also regulates bio-security management for laboratories, human genetic resources and biological resources. Also the prevention of bio-terrorism and bio-weapon threats, building of bio-security capacities and other aspects have been included, and related legal responsibilities clarified.

Senior Tories launch ERG-style group to shape policy on China

The formation of the China Research Group, modelled on the influential European Research Group of Brexit-supporting MPs, comes after senior Tories called for a rethink of Sino-British relations, accusing the communist state of a cover-up over the coronavirus outbreak. Rightwing Conservatives in particular have long been concerned about Beijing’s growing influence in the UK, epitomised by deep unease over the role of Chinese telecoms manufacturer Huawei in the UK’s 5G cellular network. There are also concerns about expanding the role of Chinese state companies in long-delayed plans to build a new generation of nuclear power plants in the UK.The increasingly hawkish stance on China stands in stark contrast to the approach over most of the last decade when the Tory party regularly tapped up Beijing for inward investment.

Europe urged to raise its game on vaccines

Paul Hudson, chief executive of Sanofi, the French pharma company, hit out today at Europe’s lack of urgency in helping industry develop a Covid-19 vaccine and the consequences of letting the US take the initiative. Sanofi, which has two potential vaccines in development, wants the EU to create an equivalent of the US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda). The US agency helps companies develop treatments and often finances manufacturing before efficacy has been proven in order to get treatments to market more quickly. Mr Hudson pointed out that most of the 76 vaccine candidates now in development in universities and smaller companies would never be mass produced. The Sanofi chief warned that European inaction would have serious consequences. “There is a risk that all of the vaccines will be manufactured first in the US because of Barda, and conceivable that the US government asks that their people are treated first,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate that Europe should be second on the list.”

FDA Warns Against Use of Chloroquine Outside of Clinical Trials

The Food and Drug Administration warned that two malaria drugs touted by President Trump and some doctors for treating the new coronavirus are linked to serious heart problems and should only be used on hospitalized patients or as part of clinical trials. The chemically similar drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine pose heart-rhythm dangers, including the too-fast heartbeat called ventricular tachycardia, the FDA said.

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