The World Today for February 19, 2020

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Public Health

Hong Kong officials recently evacuated some residents from an apartment block because they feared the deadly new coronavirus was spreading through its plumbing. A fascinating story in CNN told of two people in the high-rise contracting the virus. They were ten floors apart, but both were in apartment number seven on their respective floors. They shared the same drainage pipe.

The climate of fear has changed Hong Kong. It has hit the economy hard. Landlords have been slashing retail rents. Business has dwindled as people stay home to avoid infection, Bloomberg reported. Armed gangs are stealing toilet paper.

It has also poured cold water on anti-government protests that have been rocking the city for almost a year.

The protests erupted over a bill that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial. The demonstrations became a campaign among young people calling for greater independence from Beijing, democracy, and respect for human rights. Frontline has an amazing documentary on some of the protesters. “We want to choose our future by ourselves,” activist Agnes Chow tells the filmmakers.

But now the specter of an epidemic has reared its head. More than 2,000 people in mainland China have died from the virus, known as COVID-19. At least five deaths have been recorded outside mainland China – in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, and France.

Hong Kong police still clash with students, recently arresting attendees at a gathering they called illegal, the South China Morning Post reported, for example.

The health crisis hasn’t exactly strengthened the government’s hand, though. “Anger still simmers against the government, and the wrath has been channeled against what is perceived as government mishandling of the virus outbreak,” wrote the Associated Press.

Hong Kong residents remember how Chinese authorities initially failed to tell them about SARS, a virus that killed 299 people in the city and 349 throughout mainland China in 2002 and 2003. Quartz wrote about how many in the free-market-oriented southern city felt betrayed by their communist leaders in Beijing.

A “one country, two systems” framework was supposed to govern the former British colony between 1997 and 2047. To many, the Chinese government’s failure to store up medical supplies and take other measures to prepare for the virus was yet another example of how that framework wasn’t working out so well for Hong Kong citizens, Al Jazeera explained. Lines were stretching for blocks as customers rushed to buy disinfectant and other supplies, the Guardian added.

Imposing force while neglecting public health is not a persuasive strategy.



Horror Story

United Nations officials on Tuesday accused the Syrian government and its Russian ally of deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in the rebel-held Idlib region, acts that could constitute war crimes, Al Jazeera reported.

UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that about 300 people have died this year in the northwestern region, with more than 90 percent of the deaths caused by Syrian and Russian troops.

She called for humanitarian corridors to assist the largest exodus of civilians since World War II.

Nearly one million people have been forced to flee their homes and shelters in less than three months, since Syrian and Russian forces began their offensive in the northwestern area.

The UN has urged for a ceasefire to avert the “biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed this week that government forces will continue with their offensive, while dismissing warnings from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Ongoing Saga

A Dutch court ruled Tuesday that Russia will have to pay $50 billion in compensation to shareholders in former oil company Yukos in a major legal defeat for the Russian government, Bloomberg reported.

The Hague Court of Appeal reinstated an award previously issued by an arbitration panel in 2014 in a ruling that could set off a new wave of efforts to seize Russian state assets around the world.

The recent decision is part of a 15-year legal drama between the Russian government and owners of what was once the biggest oil company in Russia.

The Yukos affair has been considered a symbol of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to convince billionaire oligarchs that their interests are now subordinate to those of the state.

The court added that the decision could be appealed, and the Kremlin vowed to fight back against the ruling, saying that it is not bound by the award – which amounts to three percent of Russia’s gross domestic product.


New Crisis

Afghanistan’s election commission on Tuesday declared incumbent President Ashraf Ghani as the winner of the September presidential elections, following months of delayed results and bitter disputes, the New York Times reported.

The commission said that Ghani won the race with 50.64 percent of the vote – enough to surpass the 50 percent minimum required for a win.

Opposition candidates, including Ghani’s main challenger Abdullah Abdullah, accused the commission of using fraudulent votes in favor of Ghani.

They argue that 100,000 out of the 1.8 million votes were registered in the system either before or after voting hours – in some cases by weeks or months.

Supporters of Abdullah Abdullah have threatened to form a parallel government if their grievances are not addressed.

The recent announcement could start a political crisis amid peace negotiations between the United States and the Taliban.

The two parties agreed to implement a ceasefire agreement within the next four days, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


The One That Got Away

The mere mention of viruses might unsettle people nowadays, due to the deadly coronavirus outbreak that began late last year in Wuhan, China.

Recently, scientists discovered a unique virus that has almost no recognizable genes in an artificial lake in Brazil, the Independent reported.

Fortunately, the new virus doesn’t target humans, but rather the single-celled amoeba.

In their study, a team of researchers analyzed the DNA sequence of the tiny pathogen and found that 90 percent of it was made up of genes that have never been recognized before.

They dubbed it “Yaravirus,” after the legendary Yara, a mermaid-like figure in Brazilian mythology who was said to lure sailors underwater to live with her forever.

Researchers noted that amoebae generally get infected from giant viruses – known for their large genomes. The Yaravirus actually has a smaller genome but is able to infect amoebae just like its giant counterpart.

Senior author Jonatas Abrahão told Live Science that the novel virus had a few genes similar to those found in giant viruses, but it remains unclear how the two are related.

“This is one of the reasons why this new virus is so intriguing and we claim that it challenges the classification of DNA viruses,” Abrahão said.

He and his team hope to learn more about the new virus’s origins and its evolution.

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