US: $2 trillion coronavirus rescue bill hits late snags in Senate

The drive to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators demanded changes.

Leaders in the United States Senate raced to unravel last-minute snags Wednesday and win passage of an unparalleled $2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and healthcare systems engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure is the largest economic relief bill in history, and both parties’ leaders were desperate for quick passage of a bill aimed at the coronavirus that is costing lives and jobs by the hour.

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The package is intended as a weeks-long or months-long patch for an economy spiralling into recession or worse and a nation facing a grim toll from an infection that’s killed nearly 20,000 people worldwide.

Underscoring the effort’s sheer magnitude, the bill finances a response with a price tag that equals half the size of the entire $4 trillion annual federal budget.

“A fight has arrived on our shores,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican. “We did not seek it, we did not want it, but now we’re going to win it.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said: “Big help, quick help, is on the way.”

But the drive by leaders to speed the bill through the Senate was slowed as four conservative Republican senators demanded changes, saying the legislation as written “incentivizes layoffs” and should be altered to ensure employees don’t earn more money if they’re laid off than if they’re working.

Complicating the standoff, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has flagged, said he would block the bill unless the conservatives dropped their objections.

Other objections floated in from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has become a prominent Democrat on the national scene as the country battles the pandemic. Cuomo, whose state has seen more deaths from the pandemic than any other, said: “I’m telling you, these numbers don’t work.”

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said the package “goes a long way”. He said it will require strong oversight to ensure the wealthy don’t benefit at the expense of workers and proposed forgiving at least $10,000 of student loan debt as part of the federal response.

McConnell and Schumer hoped passage of the legislation in the Republican-led Senate would come by the end of the day. Stocks posted their first back-to-back gains in weeks as the package took shape over the last two days, but much of Wednesday’s early rally faded as the hitch developed in the Senate. The market is down nearly 27 percent since setting a record high a month ago.

Intense haggling

Senate passage would leave final congressional approval up to the Democratic-controlled House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said the bipartisan agreement “takes us a long way down the road in meeting the needs of the American people” but she stopped short of fully endorsing it.

“House Democrats will now review the final provisions and legislative text of the agreement to determine a course of action,” she said.

House members are scattered around the country and the timetable for votes in that chamber is unclear.

House Democratic and Republican leaders have hoped to clear the measure for President Donald Trump’s signature by a voice vote without having to call lawmakers back to Washington. But that may prove challenging, as the bill is sure to be opposed by some conservatives upset at its cost and scope. Ardent liberals were restless as well.

White House aide Eric Ueland announced the agreement in a Capitol hallway Wednesday, shortly after midnight, capping days of often intense haggling and mounting pressure. The wording of some final pieces of the agreement needs to be completed.

The sprawling, 500-page-plus measure is the third coronavirus response bill produced by Congress and by far the largest. It builds on efforts focused on vaccines and emergency response, sick and family medical leave for workers, and food aid.

It would give direct payments to most Americans, expand unemployment benefits and provide a $367bn programme for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home.

One of the last issues to close concerned $500bn for guaranteed, subsidised loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with airlines. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

McConnell, a key negotiator, said the package will “rush new resources onto the front lines of our nation’s healthcare fight. And it will inject trillions of dollars of cash into the economy as fast as possible to help Americans workers, families, small businesses and industries make it through this disruption and emerge on the other side ready to soar.”

Five days of arduous talks produced the bill, creating tensions among Congress’s top leaders, who each took care to tend to party politics as they manoeuvred and battled over crafting the legislation. But failure was never an option, which permitted both sides to mark big wins.

“That Washington drama does not matter any more,” McConnell said. “The Senate is going to stand together, act together, and pass this historic relief package today.”

Direct payments to Americans

The bill would provide one-time direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per adult making up to $75,000 a year, and $2,400 to a married couple making up to $150,000, with $500 payments per child.

A huge cash infusion for hospitals expecting a flood of COVID-19 patients grew during the talks at Schumer’s insistence. Republicans pressed for tens of billions of dollars for additional relief to be delivered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal disaster agency.

Democrats said the package would help replace the salaries of furloughed workers for four months, rather than the three months first proposed. Furloughed workers would get whatever amount a state usually provides for unemployment, plus a $600 per week add-on, with gig workers such as Uber drivers covered for the first time.

Schumer said businesses controlled by members of Congress and top administration officials – including Trump and his immediate family members – would be ineligible for the bill’s business assistance.

The New York Democrat immediately sent out a roster of negotiating wins for transit systems, hospital, and cash-hungry state governments that were cemented after Democrats blocked the measure in votes held Sunday and Monday to manoeuvre for such gains.

But Cuomo said the Senate package would send less than $4bn to New York, far short of his estimate that the crisis will cost his state up to $15bn over the next year. More than 280 New Yorkers have died from the virus, a death toll more than double that of any other state.

Pelosi was a force behind $400m in grants to states to expand voting by mail and other steps that Democrats billed as making voting safer but that Republican critics called political opportunism. The package also contains $15.5bn more for a surge in demand for food stamps.

Republicans won the inclusion of an “employee retention” tax credit that’s estimated to provide $50bn to companies that retain employees on payroll and cover 50 percent of workers’ paycheques. Companies would also be able to defer payment of the 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax.

A companion appropriations package ballooned as well, growing from a $46bn White House proposal to more than $300bn, which dwarfs earlier disasters – including Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy combined.

To provide transparency, the package is expected to create a new inspector general and oversight board for the corporate dollars, much as was done during the 2008 bank rescue, officials said.

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UN launches virus aid plan, says 'all of humanity' at risk

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says solidarity and global action are ‘crucial’.

Poorer countries need $2bn of international humanitarian aid to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said in launching a major donation appeal on Wednesday.

“COVID-19 is threatening the whole of humanity – and the whole of humanity must fight back,” Guterres said in announcing the initiative. “Global action and solidarity are crucial. Individual country responses are not going to be enough.”

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Just last week, as the novel coronavirus spread to more and more countries, killing thousands and infecting many more, Guterres warned that unless the world came together to curb the spread, millions of people could die.

In recent days, Guterres has called for much stronger global coordination on the response to the pandemic.

In a Monday letter to the G20 group of leading economic powers, he pushed for a “war-time” stimulus bill “in the trillions of dollars” to help poor countries.

According to the UN chief, the plan “aims to enable us to fight the virus in the world’s poorest countries, and address the needs of the most vulnerable people, especially women and children, older people, and those with disabilities or chronic illness”, said Guterres.

If fully funded, “it will save many lives and arm humanitarian agencies and NGOs with laboratory supplies for testing, and with medical equipment to treat the sick while protecting health care workers”, he added.

The amount of money sought by the plan is small compared to the $2 trillion that the United States Congress is poised to approve as a rescue effort for devastated US consumers, companies and hospitals as the world’s largest economy grinds to a sudden halt.

Two scenarios

The UN plan is designed to last from April to December – suggesting the world body does not see the health crisis abating any time soon.

The exact total of $2.012bn is supposed to flow in in response to appeals that various UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme, have already made.

Guterres said in parallel, humanitarian aid provided yearly by member states to help 100 million people around the world must continue.

Otherwise, he said, the coronavirus pandemic could lead to rampant outbreaks of other diseases such as cholera and measles, as well as higher levels of malnutrition.

“This is the moment to step up for the vulnerable,” Guterres said.

As spelled out in an 80-page booklet, the UN plan will be carried out by UN agencies that work directly with nongovernmental organisations.

It will be coordinated by the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, of the United Kingdom.

The money will be used for a variety of purposes: to set up handwashing facilities in refugee camps, launch public awareness campaigns, and establish humanitarian air shuttles with Africa, Asia and Latin America, the UN said.

The exact needs of some countries are still being identified.

The plan names 20 or so nations as deserving top priority for aid, including some enduring war or some degree of conflict, including Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Yemen, Venezuela and Ukraine.

But countries such as Iran and North Korea are also analysed in the booklet.

The plan foresees two general scenarios as to how the pandemic might evolve.

Under the first, the pandemic is brought under control relatively quickly as its rate of spread slows over the course of three or four months. This, the UN said, would allow for a relatively swift recovery in terms of public health and the economy.

But under the second model, the pandemic spreads quickly in countries that are poor or developing, mainly in Africa, Asia and parts of the Americas.

“This leads to longer periods of closed borders and limited freedom of movement, further contributing to a global slowdown that is already under way,” said the UN.


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Coronavirus: Herat emerges as Afghanistan's epicentre

Herat, the hotbed of coronavirus cases, poses a challenge as Kabul struggles to implement measures to check COVID-19.

Kabul, Afghanistan – As the number of coronavirus cases in Afghanistan steadily climbs,­ the western province of Herat has emerged as the epicentre of the country’s outbreak with at least 54 of the 75 total cases reported in the country.

Thousands of Afghans have returned to Herat from neighbouring Iran, where at least 1,800 people have died due to the pandemic.

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But most of them do not seem to have been quarantined in order to check the spread of the virus that has infected more than 400,000 and killed at least 18,000 people worldwide.

Government efforts to persuade people to maintain social distancing have proven futile amid the rush of returnees from Iran and a general lack of adherence to safety guidelines.

A member of a government delegation that travelled to Herat earlier this week expressed surprise at the situation there.

“I thought I would see protective masks and gloves everywhere I turned, but it was nothing like that at all. Only one, maybe 2 percent of the people were wearing masks and gloves,” said the official, who was not authorised to speak to the media about the assessments.

Province rejected safety measures

The official said both government and security forces called for measures that leaders and decision-makers in the province rejected outright.

Among those was the suspension of communal prayers, an action taken by countries including Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey and Egypt. 

“The religious leaders were asked specifically to close mosques as a matter of public health, but they said ‘No, the people of Afghanistan won’t be distanced from their faith or the mosque.'”

For weeks, the Ministry of Public Health had asked the Kabul government to order the complete shutdown of the city of Herat, a measure initially rejected by officials in Herat and Kabul, in spite of having gained public support online.

Many Afghans have taken to social media, calling for strong measures against COVID-19.

On Wednesday, authorities placed Herat, Zaranj (capital of Nimroz province) and Farah (capital of Farah province) under daytime curfews. 

It remains to be seen whether hundreds of worshippers will congregate at the historic blue-domed grand mosque in the centre of Herat on Friday as they have every week thus far.

Government officials initially dithered on the lockdown, citing a fear of its impact on the country’s struggling economy. 

Residents of Herat worry a lockdown would have a devastating impact on their province.

Haroon Azimi, a photographer based in Herat, said the calls for a lockdown fail to take the economic reality of Afghanistan into account.

“There are countless people who depend on a daily wage in Herat, they are already facing a hard time, but a quarantine would only make matters worse for them.”

Though Herat is considered one of Afghanistan’s commercial centres, it still relies greatly on small and medium-sized businesses that depend almost entirely on direct and daily cash transactions.

Hamid, a Herat resident in his 20s, agreed.

“How would people recover from being without an income for days, weeks or even months at a time. We don’t know when this thing will end, a quarantine would lead to starvation across the province for who knows how long,” he told Al Jazeera.

Hamid, who has travelled to the border between Afghanistan and Iran in recent weeks, says these curfews may have come too late.

Half the population may be infected

According to UN estimates, tens of thousands of people have arrived in Herat from Iran in recent weeks. Among them are thousands who have already returned to their homes in other provinces.

The latest figures from the Ministry of Public Health show that though the clear majority of COVID-19 cases came from Herat, the disease has reached 11 other provinces, in the south, east and north of the country.

The country’s health ministry on Tuesday said half of the country’s population might be infected with the virus.

Herat residents speaking to Al Jazeera echoed this sentiment, saying short of shutting down the Islam Gala crossing between Herat and the Iranian city of Mashhad, little can be done to contain the virus at this point.

According to the United Nations, Monday alone saw at least 1,100 people return to Afghanistan through Islam Qala. The return of Afghans has been one of the greatest sources of coronavirus-related worries in Afghanistan.

Sebghatullah, 25, had gone to Iran looking for work at the start of 2020 but, earlier this week, he decided to go back home.

Like millions of other Afghans in Iran, Sebghatullah subsisted as a daily labourer, mostly working on construction sites, but he soon realized that even being on the fringes of Iranian society couldn’t shield him from the spectre of coronavirus.

“No one was going out, there was no work, and we were forced into quarantine for hours at a time. If we did get to go outside, it was to work, and then we were immediately shooed back inside.”

Sebghatullah said with everything in Iran at a standstill, he had no choice other than to return to Afghanistan.

“At least here there are fewer cases of coronavirus,” he said.

Though the Afghan healthcare system is currently in a state where there are only three doctors for every 10,000 patients, the Afghans at the Islam Qala crossing said they’d rather take their chances in Afghanistan.

“Everyone around us had the disease, everywhere you turned there was coronavirus, and we didn’t know if the Iranian hospitals would treat us because we’re Afghan,” said Mohammad Hanif, a middle-aged man who was returning with his family.

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US-China spar over coronavirus origin

Global blame game continues over where the coronavirus came from as China, the US, and Iran point fingers.

A war of words between the United States and China over coronavirus intensified on Monday after the Chinese embassy in France suggested the outbreak actually started in the US.

President Donald Trump and other American officials have repeatedly described coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”, incensing Beijing and sparking tit-for-tat accusations on the origin of the contagion.

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“How many cases of COVID-19 were there among the 20,000 deaths due to the flu that started [in the US] in September last year?” the Chinese embassy in Paris asked in a string of messages on Twitter.

“Did the United States not try to pass off pneumonia due to the new coronavirus as flu?”

The embassy did not point to any scientific evidence for its claims.

China’s embassy in France also described the “surprise closing last July of the largest American biochemical weapons research centre at the Fort Detrick base in Maryland”.

“After the closure, a series of pneumonia or similar cases appeared in the United States,” it alleged.

Iran accusations

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed on Sunday that the coronavirus could be man-made by the US government.

The virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians, which they have obtained through different means”, he said.

Calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus”, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said Khamenei’s “fabrications are dangerous”.

“He works tirelessly to concoct conspiracy theories and prioritises ideology over the Iranian people,” Pompeo said of the supreme leader.

Trump and Pompeo have angered Beijing by repeatedly referring to “the Chinese virus” when discussing the COVID-19 outbreak first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Earlier this month, a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing, Zhao Lijian, suggested in a tweet the US military brought the virus to Wuhan.

The US in response summoned China’s ambassador, accusing China of “spreading conspiracy theories” and of “seeking to deflect criticism for its role in starting a global pandemic and not telling the world”.


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Trump defends calling coronavirus the ‘Chinese virus’

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Jordan authorises use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19

As leading doctors warn of widespread infection in Jordan, hospitals can now use malaria drug for serious conditions.

Jordan’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorised physicians to use hydroxychloroquine along with an antiviral medicine as a treatment for COVID-19 in patients in an advanced stage of the disease.

A recent French study has shown hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment that has been in use around the world for decades, may be beneficial if taken with an antibiotic for fighting a coronavirus infection.

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Dr Hayel Obeidat, the head of Jordan’s FDA, told Al Jazeera his organisation authorised the use of hydroxychloroquine on Sunday and established a legal basis for it citing international studies in the United States and Europe

He told Al Jazeera, “hydroxychloroquine should only be used as part of a treatment protocol with other antiviral components with doctors’ supervision. It is not a prevention mechanism.”

Obeidat added that the treatment should be for “compassionate use” for patients who are in stage 2 of the disease or suffer serious complications.

Obeidat said he banned the sale of hydroxychloroquine in pharmacies to prevent people from hoarding the medication and depriving patients who really need it.

Health Minister Dr Saad Jaber announced 13 more cases in a televised news conference on Sunday night, raising the total number to 112. About 5,000 people are still in government quarantine in hotels in the capital Amman and the Dead Sea area.

The government declared a state of emergency on Thursday and announced a general curfew on Saturday to fight the coronavirus’ spread.

As for treating current COVID-19 infections in Jordan with hydroxychloroquine, Obeidat said, at this point, all confirmed cases are not serious enough to require it.

He said Jordanian pharmaceutical manufacturers had large quantities of the drug and donated all of their stock to the government in the effort to fight the infection.

Exponential infections

Dr Asem Mansour, the head of Jordan’s King Hussein Cancer Center, a prominent hospital in Jordan, said the French study that declared hydroxychloroquine was a possible coronavirus treatment was not accurate scientifically in terms of its size and measurement parameters.

“However,” he said, “the use of hydroxychloroquine should be administered only as a medicine of last resort.”

Jordan, a country of about 10 million people, is not capable of handling an exponential growth of the virus among its population, which is expected in the weeks to come, he said.

“The next three weeks are critical because the quarantined people might show infections and because of massive lines at bakeries and food stores right before the curfew took effect on Saturday, which might raise the number of infections,” said Mansour.

“Our hope is that people would obey government directives to prevent widespread infection and spare the country a dire situation.”

He added Jordan has a limited number of intensive care units and hospital beds to handle a widespread outbreak.

Lack of testing 

A professor of medicine at a national university, with first-hand knowledge of coronavirus cases in the country, agreed with Mansour, stressing Jordan has not reached its peak number of cases yet.

“Based on the behaviour of the population, which has not been very helpful in the past few weeks, and the lack of widespread testing by the government, I expect an exponential growth of infections,” he told Al Jazeera on a condition of anonymity, because he was not allowed to speak to the media.

While Jordan currently has no coronavirus deaths, he said, it would likely see some, especially among older patients.

Casting a hopeful note, Dr Mansour, head of King Hussien Cancer Center, said he “hopes Jordan can overcome that because the majority of its population are young and might not need extensive hospitalisation should they get infected”.

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @ali_reports


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Is total lockdown the cure for coronavirus?

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Alarm and scepticism over N Korea claim of being coronavirus free

North Korea watchers say there are cases in the country and are concerned it will devastate impoverished nation.

Seoul, South Korea – More than 160 countries across the world are battling COVID-19, but as coronavirus challenges even the world’s most sophisticated health systems, there is one nation that claims to have no cases at all: North Korea.

“Not one novel coronavirus patient has emerged,” Song In Bom, an official from North Korea’s emergency health committee said last month in the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper. 

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But even if North Korea is free from coronavirus, the Kim Jong Un regime is not doing a good job at convincing the rest of the world.

In South Korea, analysts and medical experts are highly sceptical of Pyongyang’s claims – and those with sources in North Korea said the virus is already ravaging its way through the country.

“Despite the fact that North Korea closed its borders or refused to allow Chinese or foreign travellers in, it is very likely that some North Koreans are already infected,” said Roh Kyoung-ho, a doctor at the National Health Insurance Service Ilsan Hospital Department of Laboratory Medicine.

“I don’t think it’s even possible to measure cases there because North Korea’s medical system is not well-established or advanced.”

Virus verified? 

Nobody knows for sure if anyone in North Korea has already contracted coronavirus, but recent political moves seem to signal worry in Pyongyang. 

Earlier this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un broke months of diplomatic silence by penning a personal letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The letter’s contents were not released, but a briefing from Moon’s senior press secretary stated that it was full of well-wishes and concern about South Korea’s COVID-19 outbreak. The sudden move has some experts wondering if North Korea is working on an appeal for coronavirus aid.

“I think that the North Koreans would probably accept masks or hand sanitiser or respirators, and maybe also some other forms of health assistance. And I think it should be done for humanitarian reasons,” said Peter Ward, a researcher on the North Korean economy and writer for NK News. 

“But at the same time, I think we should be under no illusions that such humanitarian support will give us any leverage in dealing with North Korea in terms of denuclearisation.”

Talks over North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities have been on hold for months after the collapse of a summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in February last year.

North Korea has carried out a series of missile launches since then, most recently on Saturday, when the state-run KCNA also revealed that Kim had received a letter from Trump.

A senior White House official confirmed the letter had been sent saying it was “consistent with efforts to engage global leaders during the ongoing pandemic,” according to Reuters.

Seo Jae-pyoung, an activist originally from North Korea who now heads the Seoul-based Association of North Korean Defectors, said that he had heard reports of COVID-19 in North Korea. 

“I’ve spoken directly with people in North Korea and have heard that North Korea declared a state of emergency,” Seo said.

“I heard that the first case in North Korea was confirmed on January 27, and that the People’s Army locked down roads and railways in provincial cities, and that people were not even able to walk in the streets.”

Information coming out of North Korea’s tightly controlled borders is often scarce and hard to verify.

Nevertheless, Seo claims he has received messages from sources stating that face masks are being smuggled into the country through China, and that masks from South Korea are being sold on the black market and given as gifts to high-ranking officials.

And because of the country’s limited access to test kits, North Korea is often basing its diagnosis on patients’ symptoms, he said.

“Regular, everyday North Korean people don’t really know about this virus,” Seo said. “In North Korea, they’re just seeing it as some scary disease.”

Journalists and researchers have also heard about an outbreak.

Robert Lauler, a former NGO worker and English editor at the Daily NK, an online publication that has contacts in North Korea, said its sources reported 82 people in quarantine and 23 dead from COVID-19 in the country.

“That information is from a couple of weeks ago,” Lauler said.

“Last week, we also ran a story about a military report that stated that around almost 200 soldiers had died from symptoms that appeared to be coronavirus. But in all these cases, the numbers we put out are not necessarily 100 percent from coronavirus. The sources we have suggest that there has been an outbreak and that people are dying.”

Risk of devastation

A coronavirus outbreak would be devastating to the North Korean people and an economy that is already suffering under economic sanctions. 

“We’re talking about an amazing level of devastation to the North Korean economy and particularly to the breadbasket region in North Korea, which is on the northwestern side of the country,” Lauler said. “I’m pessimistic … Given that sanctions and all the other conditions are still in place, it doesn’t really bode well for the economy going forward.”

As an authoritarian state, the North Korean government does have the power to unilaterally order people into lockdown or stop travel throughout the country. Some foreign diplomats were reportedly forced into quarantine, for example, and ultimately flown out of the country after being released.

North Korea is already vulnerable to devastation because of last year’s blows from Hurricane Lingling and African Swine Fever. Moreover, North Korea’s weak healthcare infrastructure would probably be overwhelmed by a rapid spread of COVID-19.

“Outside of Pyongyang and Hamhung, I believe there are virtually no medical institutions where everyday people can easily get treatment,” Seo said. “Most cities do not have an ambulance or transportation for patients, and many people who quarantine would have to do so at home.” 

Malnutrition and disease across North Korea have been rising since the middle of 2019, when harvests were significantly damaged by droughts and floods. More than 10 million people suffered from “severe food shortages,” according to the UN.

“Given the relatively low levels of nutrition in the country and the chronic disease rates, you would imagine the fatality rate would be higher in North Korea than a lot of other places,” Ward said.

That is why he believes North Korea is keeping its suspected outbreak a secret from the rest of the world.

“The government is concerned about a public awareness of a serious outbreak that could kill hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “They are trying to avoid social panic and social instability.”

Mitch S Shin contributed to this report.

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Coronavirus live updates: Italy deaths at 3,405; cases up 41,000

Italy’s death toll from coronavirus pandemic continue to rise as China reports at least 228 new cases from abroad.

The death toll from an outbreak of coronavirus in Italy rose in the last 24 hours by 427 to 3,405, overtaking the total number of deaths so far registered in China, officials said, as the tally worldwide nears 10,000.

Thursday’s figure in Italy represented a slight improvement on the day before, when the country recorded 475 deaths from COVID-19, while the world has stepped up efforts against the coronavirus pandemic by closing schools, shutting down cities and imposing strict border controls.

The total number of infections in Italy has also risen to more than 41,000, while cases in Germany, Iran and Spain rose to more than 15,000 each. Cases in the US also surged past 13,000.

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More than 240,000 people have now been confirmed with the coronavirus globally, of which at least 85,000 have recovered from COVID-19, while more than 9,800 have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in the US.

Here are all the latest updates:

Friday 20 March

01:45 GMT – South Korea reports 87 new cases and three more deaths

South Korea has reported 87 new cases of the novel coronavirus and three more deaths, bringing its totals to 8,652 cases and 94 deaths.

The Associated Press news agency quoted South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday as saying that 316,600 people have so far been tested for the virus and 2,230 have been released from hospitals.

While infections have slowed in the worst-hit city of Daegu, there is also growing concern about a steady rise in cases in the Seoul metropolitan areas, where about half of South Korea’s 51 million people live.

01:25 GMT – China reports record new coronavirus cases from abroad

China’s coronavirus infections from abroad hit a new daily record while infected travellers reached an unprecedented number of Chinese provinces, pressuring authorities to hold the bar high on already tough custom rules and public-health protocols.

Mainland China had 39 new confirmed cases on Thursday, the country’s National Health Commission said on Friday, all of which were imported cases. There were no locally transmitted cases for the second day.

Of the new imported infections, 14 were in Guangdong, eight in Shanghai and six in Beijing, the health authority said in a statement on Friday.

As of Thursday, there were 228 imported infections in China.

01:18 GMT- Philippines bans entries of all foreigners

The Philippines is indefinitely banning the entry of foreigners after the government declared a state of calamity and public health emergency amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that it is temporarily suspending visa issuances in all its foreign posts effective immediately.

The drastic move exempts foreign government and international organization officials and their dependents as well as foreign spouses and children of Filipino citizens, the department said.

00:23 GMT- Australian banks announce $57bn loan relief package for businesses

Australian banks on Friday said they would defer loan repayments for six months for small businesses impacted by the coronavirus in a A$100bn ($57.34 billion) relief package, Reuters news agency reported.

Depending on customer take up, this could help put as much as A$8bn ($4.6bn) back into the coffers of small businesses, Australia Banking Association chief Anna Bligh said.

“These are extraordinary times,” she told reporters, adding Australia’s banking system was among the strongest and the most stable in the world.

There were more than 700 confirmed coronavirus cases in Australia as of Thursday. 

00:01 GMT Friday – Fears for tourism in Bali amid coronavirus pandemic

Indonesia will suspend its visa-on-arrival policy for a month from Friday to curb the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus in the archipelago, effectively shutting the country’s tourism.

For the resort island of Bali, where more than three-quarters of the economy is linked to tourism, the de-facto border closure could prove catastrophic for the population of 4.2 million people.

Read full story here.

23:55 GMT Thursday – US court declines to release immigration detainees

A federal judge in the US has declined to order the release of immigration detainees who may be especially vulnerable to the new coronavirus because they are old or have underlying health conditions, according to the Associated Press news agency.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sought the release of nine detainees at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Northwest detention center in Tacoma in the state of Washington.

US District Judge James L Robart said he was aware of the gravity and rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 crisis, but that there is no evidence of an outbreak at the privately run jail or that the agency’s precautions are inadequate.

20:00 GMT Thursday – Potential coronavirus treatment touted by Trump already in shortage -pharmacists

Supply of a malaria treatment that has been tried with some  success against the new coronavirus is in short supply as demand surges amid the fast-spreading outbreak, according to independent pharmacies and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP).

The ASHP, which maintains a list of drugs in shortage independent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s list, plans to add the generic malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to its list of shortages later on Thursday, according to Erin Fox, senior director of drug information at University of Utah Health, who maintains the shortages list for the ASHP.

The FDA could not be immediately reached for comment, but hydroxychloroquine is not currently on its list of drugs in shortage.

President Donald Trump on Thursday called on US health regulators to expedite potential therapies aimed at treating COVID-19 for which there is no approved treatments or vaccines.

19:55 GMT Thursday – US sick leave aid leaves millions of workers in the cold

It’s usually standing room only at O’Duffy’s Pub on St Patrick’s Day, as patrons clad in green pack into the bar to share a drink or two and plenty of food. But this year, owner Jamie Kavanaugh and one of his bartenders sat alone on the holiday that commemorates Ireland’s patron saint. Like restaurants across the country, Kavanaugh’s Kalamazoo, Michigan, bar is now only allowed to serve takeout food as part of social distancing ordinances meant to curb the coronavirus pandemic. 

“People are usually celebrating, smiling, toasting one another, sharing hugs and smiles. Instead, the pub is empty,” Kavanaugh told Al Jazeera. “People that came in for takeout didn’t even want to come in the door, and they’re afraid to use the pen to sign.” 

Read more here.

I’m Ted Regencia in Kuala Lumpur with Al Jazeera’s continuing coverage of the unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

For all the updates from yesterday (March 19), please click here.

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New coronavirus cases in Qatar 'related to migrant workers'

Qatar, which has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the Arab Gulf region at 452, has banned entry of foreigners.

More people have tested positive for coronavirus in Qatar and are currently in isolation, the country’s ministry of public health said.

There are 10 new confirmed cases of coronavirus, the ministry confirmed in a statement on Wednesday, bringing the country’s overall total to 452 – the highest in the Arab Gulf region.

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Most of the new registered cases were “related to migrant workers” who were already under quarantine, the statement said.

A further case was a Qatari citizen who had returned from Switzerland.

“The infected cases have been entered to complete sanitary isolation, they are in good health and receiving the necessary medical care,” the ministry of health said.

Amid growing fears over the spread of the virus, Qatar has banned entry of foreigners after suspending all incoming flights for the next two weeks.

Oman followed suit, and also prevented citizens from going abroad while suspending public transportation, excluding buses serving remote areas.

On Tuesday, Qatar announced the closure of all shops and bank branches, except for food stores and pharmacies. Eighty percent of government employees were also ordered to work from home.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reported 67 new infections, bringing its total to 238. The kingdom has suspended most private sector activities.

Kuwait recorded 12 more cases, including six Kuwaitis, an American and a Spaniard who had all been to the United Kingdom. That took the total number of infections in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to over 1,100.

The United Arab Emirates, a major international air transit centre and the Gulf region’s tourism and business hub, said starting from Thursday, all arrivals must remain in home isolation for 14 days or face legal action, state news agency WAM reported.

The UAE also banned Emiratis from travelling abroad and said it would indefinitely stop issuing visas on arrival from Thursday.

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Iran defends response as virus deaths surpass 1,000

Health ministry says 5,710 people have recovered from coronavirus, reportedly including a 103-year-old woman.

Iran said its coronavirus death toll surpassed 1,000 on Wednesday as President Hassan Rouhani defended the response of his administration, which has yet to impose a lockdown.

The COVID-19 outbreak in sanctions-hit Iran is one of the deadliest outside China, where the disease originated.

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Rouhani’s government said the virus has killed 1,135 people out of 17,161 cases of infection since it first emerged in the Islamic Republic a month ago.

“Some ask why the government isn’t intervening, but I think we have intervened significantly,” the president said.

“Great things have been done [including] measures no other country has taken,” he said in televised remarks after a weekly meeting of his cabinet.

“We will get past these hard days,” added Rouhani, who was flanked by ministers wearing face masks.

Centenarian recovers

The health ministry said 5,710 people had overcome the virus.

One person who recovered was a 103-year-old woman, state media reported, despite overwhelming evidence that the elderly are the most at risk.

The unnamed woman had been hospitalised in the central city of Semnan for about a week, IRNA news agency said.

But she was “discharged after making a complete recovery”, Semnan University of Medical Sciences head Navid Danayi was quoted as saying.

The report did not say how she was treated.

Iran has yet to impose any lockdowns, but officials have repeatedly called on the public to stay home for the Iranian New Year holidays starting this week.

Since it announced its first two deaths in the holy Shia city of Qom on February 19, Iran has taken a series of additional steps to contain the virus.

It has closed schools and universities until early April, as well as four key pilgrimage sites, including the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom.

Iran has also cancelled the main weekly Friday prayers, and temporarily closed parliament.

‘Be patient’

Few officials have directly commented on why a lockdown has not been imposed.

But Tehran’s mayor has said the economy may not be able to handle the cost of doing so, especially while it is under crippling US sanctions.

“In a normal situation and a good economy, we could have imposed a lockdown,” Pirouz Hanachi was quoted as saying by Mehr news agency.

“But what comes next, like providing necessary goods or compensating for losses across Iran, is not possible, so a complete lockdown cannot be done,” he added.

The United States withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal and began reimposing punishing sanctions on Iran in 2018, blocking banking transactions and oil sales, among other sectors.

An Iranian health official said the outbreak could last longer than two more months if people keep travelling, especially during the holidays.

“Now, everyone knows about this disease, and what is very strange is that some don’t take it seriously,” Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi said.

“If people help, we can control it, and if not, then expect it to last more than two months.”

The deputy minister complained that in Tehran “bazaars are busy” and that people travel in their cars despite warnings not to do so.

“Just be patient for these two weeks so that, God willing, we can overcome this virus,” Raisi said.

Millions dead?

The New Year holidays start on March 20 this year and will last until early April.

Many Iranians traditionally travel to popular spots such as the northern provinces of Mazandaran and Gilan, which are two of the worst-hit with coronavirus.

An Iranian doctor has warned “millions” could die in the Islamic Republic if people keep travelling and ignore health advisories. 

Dr Afruz Eslami said if people begin to cooperate now, Iran will see 120,000 infections and 12,000 deaths before the outbreak is over. If they offer medium cooperation, there will be 300,000 cases and 110,000 deaths, she added.

But if people fail to follow any guidance, it could collapse Iran’s already-strained medical system, Eslami said.

If the “medical facilities are not sufficient, there will be four million cases, and 3.5 million people will die,” she said. 


UpFront

Coronavirus inaction: Could leaders have blood on their hands?

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