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Monday, Jan 25, 2021

US death toll tops 90,000 as WHO promises pandemic review

World Health Organisation to hold independent inquiry into the handling of the outbreak. French and German leaders propose €500 billion EU recovery package

A half-trillion-euro European fund laid out by France and Germany sparked optimism fighting economic fallout from the coronavirus, as did encouraging early results on vaccine research by a US biotech firm.

Global markets surged as Europe pushed towards normality with major landmarks reopening after a two-month hiatus, and as China told the World Health Organisation it would back an independent inquiry into the handling of the outbreak once the pandemic is “brought under control”.

At the White House, President Donald Trump slammed China’s handling of the crisis - and dropped a bombshell by revealing he has been taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that is an unproven treatment against coronavirus.

Trump, who has tested negative for Covid-19, dismissed safety warnings about the drug, saying he is taking it “because I think it’s good. I’ve heard a lot of good stories”.

Nearly 4.8 million people have tested positive and 316,000 have been killed by the disease since it was first detected in Wuhan, China late last year. The US death toll from Covid-19 climbed over 90,000 on Monday as more states and cities announced plans to slowly reopen their economies and test their residents.

The coronavirus has left the world economy facing its worst downturn since the Great Depression. Fresh evidence of the deep damage came when Japan announced its first recession since 2015.

The world’s biggest economy is also headed to a massive downturn, US Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell warned.

April-to-June data “will be very, very bad,” Powell said, adding that the economic hardship “could stretch through the end of next year.”

China reports 6 new cases, no deaths

China reported six new coronavirus cases for May 18, compared to seven a day earlier, the health authority said on Tuesday.

The National Health Commission said in its daily bulletin that three of the six new cases were imported. The imported cases were all detected in Inner Mongolia.

Of the three new local transmissions, two were in the northeastern border province of Jilin and one in Hubei, where the coronavirus was first identified.

The commission also reported 17 new asymptomatic coronavirus cases on May 18, compared to 18 on the previous day.
Brazil third in Covid-19 cases worldwide

Brazil has the third-highest number of novel coronavirus cases in the world, according to official figures released Monday, a troubling surge for a country struggling to respond to the pandemic.

With 254,220 confirmed cases, Brazil has now surpassed Britain, Spain and Italy in the past 72 hours on the list of total infections, and is behind only the United States (1.5 million) and Russia (290,000).

Brazil has registered 16,792 Covid-19 deaths, the sixth-highest toll in the world.

But experts say under-testing means the real figures could be 15 times higher or more.

The giant South American country of 210 million people is torn by a political battle over how to respond to the virus.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro compares the virus to a “little flu”, condemns the “hysteria” surrounding it and is urging the country to get back to work to stop an economic crash.

State and local authorities, however, are largely calling on citizens to stay home and practice social distancing - backed by the Supreme Court, which gave them the final say in the matter.

Bolsonaro is now seeking his third health minister since the pandemic began.

He fired the first after publicly battling over stay-at-home measures, and the second resigned last week after less than a month on the job, reportedly over the president’s insistence on widespread use of the controversial and unproven malaria drug chloroquine to treat the disease.

Hospitals in several areas are meanwhile operating close to full capacity, and the hardest-hit cities have begun burying victims in mass graves, even as the number of infections continues to soar.

WHO promises pandemic review

The World Health Organisation said on Monday an independent review of the global coronavirus response would begin as soon as possible and it received backing and a hefty pledge of funds from China, in the spotlight as a suspected origin of the pandemic.

But the WHO’s chief critic, the US administration of President Donald Trump, decried an “apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak by at least one member state”.

Trump said later in Washington that the WHO, which he called a “puppet of China”, had “done a very sad job” in its handling of the coronavirus and he would make a decision about US funding to the body soon.

Trump has already suspended US funding for the WHO after accusing it of being too China-centric, and at the same time led international criticism of Beijing’s perceived lack of transparency in the early stages of the crisis.

China Health Minister Ma Xiaowei said Beijing had been timely and open in announcing the outbreak and sharing the virus’s full gene sequence, and urged countries to “oppose rumours, stigmatisation and discrimination”.

China’s President Xi Jinping pledged US$2 billion over the next two years to help deal with Covid-19, especially in developing countries.

Trump says he has taken unproven malaria drug

US President Donald Trump said Monday that he is taking a malaria drug to lessen symptoms should he get the new coronavirus, even though the drug is unproven for fighting Covid-19.

Trump told reporters he has been taking the drug, hydroxychloroquine, and a zinc supplement daily “for about a week and a half now”. Trump spent weeks pushing the drug as a potential cure for Covid-19 against the cautionary advice of many of his administration’s top medical professionals. The drug has the potential to cause significant side effects in some patients and has not been shown to combat the new coronavirus.

Trump said his doctor did not recommend the drug to him, but he requested it from the White House physician.

Trump repeatedly has pushed the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine with or without the antibiotic azithromycin, but no large, rigorous studies have found them safe or effective for preventing or treating Covid-19. They can cause heart rhythm problems and other side effects. The Food and Drug Administration has warned against the drug combo and said hydroxychloroquine should only be used for coronavirus in formal studies.

Two large observational studies, each involving around 1,400 patients in New York, recently found no benefit from hydroxychloroquine. Two new ones published Thursday in the medical journal BMJ reached the same conclusion.

Trump’s bombshell came as the US death toll from Covid-19 climbed over 90,000 on Monday as more states and cities announced plans to slowly reopen their economies and test their residents.

The number of confirmed cases nationwide passed 1.5 million, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking infections and deaths.

France, Germany propose €500 billion relaunch plan

France and Germany proposed on Monday a €500 billion (US$542 billion) fund to finance the recovery of the European Union’s economy from the devastation wrought by the coronavirus crisis.

Putting aside past differences and seeking to prove that the Franco-German core of Europe remains intact, President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the unprecedented package after talks by video conference.

With the European economy facing its biggest challenge since World War II, Macron also acknowledged that the EU had fallen short in its initial response to the virus and needed to coordinate more closely on health.

Financed by “borrowing from the market in the name of the EU,” the money will flow to the “worst-hit sectors and regions” in the 27-member bloc, the two countries said in a joint statement.

Countries benefiting from the financing would not have to repay the money, Macron added, emphasising that the funds “were not loans”.

The borrowing marks a major shift by Germany, which has until now rebuffed calls by Spain and Italy for so-called “coronabonds” for joint borrowing on financial markets to provide stimulus cash.

Germany, the Netherlands and other rich countries had seen them as an attempt by the indebted south to unfairly take advantage of the north’s fiscal discipline.

But Merkel said the seriousness of the crisis meant that “solidarity” must be the order of the day.

French drive-in cinema beats lockdown

French cinema owners are up in arms because a drive-in film festival is beating the country’s lockdown while they are forced to stay closed.

They are angry at a travelling drive-in film festival which began in the southwestern city of Bordeaux this weekend, and which is set to cross the country showing a mixture of art house films and crowd-pleasing French hits.

The federation of French cinema owners (FNCF) said that the festival and a plethora of other outdoor projections were leeching audiences away when “local and national authorities should be concentrating on battling to reopen cinemas”.

The drive-in festival gets around French coronavirus social distancing restrictions by having the audience stay in their cars to the watch the films.

Although the lockdown in France was relaxed somewhat last week, restrictions remain tight in a large swathe of the country including the capital Paris.

While most shops have reopened, there is little prospect of cinemas opening their doors till at least July.

Shakespeare’s Globe theatre under threat

Shakespeare’s Globe, the replica open-air theatre in London, has warned it could close without emergency government funds to get it through the coronavirus lockdown, documents showed Monday.

The Globe, which also leads research into the English playwright, warned in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry that the stay-at-home order “has been financially devastating and could even be terminal”.

Without emergency funds, “we will not be able to survive this crisis; a tragedy for the arts, for the legacy of England’s most famous writer, but also for the country, if our iconic site on Bankside stands empty”, it said.

The theatre, a full-scale thatched replica of Shakespeare’s 1599 open-air theatre, was built in 1997 near its original location on the south bank of the River Thames.

More than one million people a year visit the site, which also includes the candlelit Jacobean Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and a library and archive.

The Globe is already benefiting from the government’s job retention scheme and other measures, but is asking for at least £5 million (US$6.1 million) more – 20 per cent of annual turnover.

Italy has its fewest daily deaths in 2 months

Italy has registered its lowest daily increases in both deaths and new cases of Covid-19 since before the national lockdown began in early March.

According to data from the Health Ministry, 99 deaths of persons with coronavirus infections were registered in a 24-hour period ending Monday evening.

That same period saw 451 confirmed new cases.

On Monday, Italians enjoyed a first day of regained freedoms, including being able to sit down at a cafe or restaurant, shop in all retail stores or attend church services such as Mass.

But until next month they still can’t travel outside their regions except for work or other strict necessities, as lockdown rules are gradually lifted.

Italy now officially has 32,007 deaths, although many in nursing homes who died during the lockdown period weren’t tested for coronavirus as the tests were mainly given to hospitalised patients.

Overall, there are 225,886 confirmed cases of Covid-in Italy, where Europe’s outbreak began.

Qantas to give masks but no vacant seats

Qantas Airways said on Tuesday it would introduce new measures on board such as providing masks and cleaning wipes to give passengers peace of mind during the pandemic, but it would not leave middle seats empty.

Catering will be simplified, aircraft cleaning will be stepped up and passengers will be asked to limit movement around the cabin once seated as part of the new measures to be put in place from June 12, the airline said.

Masks will not be mandatory but Qantas will recommend that passengers wear them in the interest of everyone’s peace of mind, it said.

Qantas Group Medical Director Dr Ian Hosegood said social distancing, such as leaving the middle seat empty, was not practical on board, and the airline did not believe it was needed given the low transmission risk.

“The data shows that actual risk of catching coronavirus on an aircraft is already extremely low,” he said. “That’s due to a combination of factors, including the cabin air filtration system, the fact people don’t sit face-to-face and the high backs of aircraft seats acting as a physical barrier.”

His comments come as jet manufacturers and airlines are launching an urgent initiative to convince nervous travellers that the air they breathe on planes is safe, believing this is critical to rebuilding the travel industry.

Qantas has grounded all of its international flights until at least the end of July with the exception of government charters, but it expects domestic demand could start picking up sooner as restrictions ease.

Saliva on ball to be axed at cricket matches

Cricketers are set to be banned from using saliva to shine the ball due to the coronavirus pandemic, following recommendations by the International Cricket Council.

The ICC’s influential cricket committee met via conference call on Monday and made the recommendations after a briefing from the governing body’s medical advisory committee.

It was unanimously agreed that the “elevated risk of transmission” caused by polishing the ball using spit meant the traditional method must be shelved for now, though sweat will still be permitted.

Additionally, it was decided to vote for a suspension to the rule guaranteeing neutral umpires in Test cricket in a bid to minimise travel amid quarantine issues.

No home nation umpire has stood in a Test since 2002.

In 1994, the ICC mandated the use of one neutral umpire per Test, which was extended to two eight years later.

The committee also suggested one additional DRS review should be awarded to each team per innings.

The measures must now go forward for consideration by the ICC chief executives’ committee before being approved.

South Sudan VP tests positive

South Sudan Vice-President Riek Machar says he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

The former leader of the armed opposition in South Sudan’s five-year civil war rejoined the government months ago under the latest peace deal.

Machar is the deputy of the country’s Covid-19 task force and says all of its members were tested after one was found to have the virus.

He says his wife, the defence minister, also has tested positive but says “many” of those who tested positive are in good health.
Machar’s spokesman James Gatdet said that included Machar and his wife, and he adds that the infections will not hinder the implementation of the peace deal.

South Sudan’s government said the country now has 347 confirmed virus cases.


Quote of the Day

I am patient with stupidity but not with those who are proud of it.

Edith Sitwell
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