The World Today for March 16, 2020

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Shock and Song

Late Saturday, dozens of people in a small bar in Paris began counting down to midnight.

Then the unthinkable happened. The establishment, like all “non-essential” businesses in the country, closed its doors – until when, no one is sure. “It’s eerie,” said one patron leaving the bar.

France went into a near shutdown this weekend, joining Spain, which closed all non-essential businesses and ordered people to stay home. Italy shut down the country last week. All three nations had large spikes in the number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, which has infected almost 170,000 people worldwide and killed over 6,500, with nearly half of the fatalities in China.

Over the past week, as the virus showed little signs of slowing down, governments around the world have moved to implement stronger measures to contain it, shutting businesses, restaurants, schools and sometimes borders.

Europe, which is now the epicenter of the virus, saw many governments such as Poland close its borders to foreigners and shut down air and rail travel. Denmark did the same, and canceled ferries and trains. Germany closed its borders Monday.

In the Middle East, Jordan announced it was suspending all flights. It had previously closed its borders and banned public gatherings, including mosques and churches. Saudi Arabia shuttered entertainment venues, halted a pilgrimage and suspended air travel, along with Kuwait.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that the country would deploy cell-phone tracking and other tech tools to track those infected – and warn others – in spite of unprecedented privacy violations such measures would cause.

Australian officials mulled locking down the country as they worried about following Europe’s trajectory. So far, only gatherings of more than 500 people are banned. Schools are exempted.

Still, from Israel to Afghanistan to Indonesia, officials closed schools. Singapore closed mosques. The Philippines sealed off Manila. And most countries restricted entry from citizens, residents and travelers from numerous European countries. Guatemala banned arrivals from the United States and Canada, Reuters reported.

In Africa, which has been relatively spared so far, some countries such as Rwanda and Namibia saw their first infections.

And while the pandemic is having an economic impact almost everywhere, it has also had an unexpected effect on politics in some nations. In Israel, for example, a year of political gridlock through three elections may be thawing with various factions coming together, reported the Washington Post. Even so, Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz was chosen by the president Sunday to form a government, NPR reported.

In Uganda, however, President Yoweri Museveni postponed next year’s elections to 2023, the Nairobi Times reported. Critics accused Museveni, in power since 1986, of using the pandemic to cling to power.

In Germany, meanwhile, officials were outraged over President Donald Trump’s attempt to create a bidding war over exclusive access for Americans to a vaccine in development in the country, reported the Guardian.

In contrast, on the ground everywhere, there have been gestures of solidarity and acts of heroism, from truck drivers in China delivering food to cut off areas to doctors in Iran dancing for patients to cheer them up.

And through the lockdowns and quarantines, people have found ways to come together.

In Madrid Saturday, applause broke out across the city as residents took to their balconies and rooftops and clapped their gratitude for front-line health care workers.

In Italy, millions of Italians broke out in song in a show of spirit and solidarity, singing the national anthem from windows and balconies Friday night. The national sing-a-long as well as serenades continued over the weekend with folk and pop songs – and, of course, this being Italy, opera (see some break into song here, here and here, and more detail here).

Meanwhile, in France, the casual response to the pandemic led the prime minster to plead.

“The vast majority of scientists say the best way (to combat the virus) is social distancing,” said Prime Minister Edouard Philippe Friday evening. “I’m not telling you it’s a nice term. It puts us off because we are a people that likes to gather, a joyful people, a people that likes to live together. … But we saw too many people in cafes and restaurants. In normal times, this would make me happy because this is the France that we all love. But for a few weeks, this it is not what we should be doing. …We must show more discipline.”

Still, on Sunday, the French went to vote in local elections. And then many went to the parks, to picnic and enjoy the rare winter sun. “What else can we do,” said Veronique, 24, a student.

COVID-19 Global Update

Beginning today, and for the foreseeable future, we’ll be providing an updated daily list of the countries with the largest number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus. We hope that you, your family and your colleagues will remain safe throughout this extraordinary time.

Of the 146 nations worldwide with confirmed cases of the coronavirus, here are the Top 10

  1. China 81,020
  2. Italy 24,747
  3. Iran 13,938
  4. South Korea 8,162
  5. Spain 7,844
  6. Germany 5,813
  7. France 5,437
  8. United States 3,774
  9. Switzerland 2,200
  10. United Kingdom 1,395



By the Numbers

Guyana’s government and the opposition agreed Sunday to a complete recount of votes following allegations of fraud in the March 2 general elections, the Associated Press reported.

The announcement follows one Friday by the country’s electoral commission which said that incumbent President David Granger won a second five-year term.

Several international observer groups questioned the ballot counting process, while the United States and other Western nations hinted of possible sanctions should any president be sworn in without a valid recount.

Following the warnings, Granger agreed to a vote recount. A team from the 15-nation Caribbean Community will supervise the process.

The recent political tensions come as the poor South American country enters oil production and could become one of the wealthiest nations in the hemisphere.

Guyana recently sold its first million barrels to US and Asian markets.


Half Steps

The Afghan government announced Saturday it was postponing the release of Taliban prisoners, a move that could threaten a peace deal signed late last month between the insurgent group and the United States, Al Jazeera reported.

Officials said that more time was needed to review the list of Taliban prisoners in order to ensure that the released individuals would not resume fighting.

President Ashraf Ghani said last week that he would free 1,500 prisoners on Saturday as “a gesture of goodwill” in order to mend relations with the armed group.

He added that another 3,500 would be freed following the start of intra-Afghan talks between the government and the Taliban.

The Taliban rejected the offer and demanded the release of nearly 5,000 prisoners, citing it as a condition of the US-Taliban agreement and a prerequisite to talks.

There was no comment from the group regarding the postponed prisoner swap.

Under the deal, foreign forces would withdraw from Afghanistan within 14 months in exchange for Taliban security guarantees and a pledge to hold talks with the Afghan government.


Coming Together

Romania’s parliament approved a new government led by Prime Minister Ludovic Orban Saturday, in order to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, Politico reported.

Orban’s new cabinet comes a month after his previous administration dissolved following a no-confidence vote in parliament.

The opposition Social Democrat Party (PSD) voted in favor of the new government, adding that it would have voted against Orban under normal circumstances.

“The state institutions and the specialists fighting the epidemic need stability and rapid measures,” PSD leader Marcel Ciolacu wrote on Facebook.

After signing the decree to approve Orban’s cabinet, President Klaus Iohannis declared a state of emergency in order to fight the spread of the virus.

“The first priority for the new government is, of course, to continue the fight against the coronavirus epidemic, to continue the fight to effectively manage the entire crisis that has arisen,” said Iohannis.

Romania has more than 100 confirmed cases far.


Heat Seekers

Dogs’ noses are not only able to detect faint smells and diseases, but they are also capable of detecting heat.

In a recent study, scientists found that pooches can sniff out weak, radiating heat at short distances, Science Magazine reported.

The tips of dogs’ noses – known as rhinaria – are moist, colder than ambient temperature and rich in nerves, which can help them detect warmth.

In one experiment, researchers trained three pet dogs to choose between a warm and an ambient-temperature object, each placed more than five feet away. All three dogs were able to detect weak thermal radiation in double-blind experiments.

The team further tested this ability by monitoring the brains of 13 pet dogs of different breeds while presenting them with objects emitting neutral or weak thermal radiation.

The brain scans revealed that the dogs’ left hemispheres were more responsive to the warm thermal stimulus than the neutral one.

The team speculated that this ability to detect faint heat was inherited from a wolf ancestor which used it to sniff out warm prey.

“It’s a fascinating discovery,” said Marc Bekoff, an animal behavior researcher who was not involved in the study. “[It] provides yet another window into the sensory worlds of dogs’ highly evolved cold noses.”

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