The World Today for April 20, 2020

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COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest number as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US 759,696 (+3.32%)
  2. Spain 198,674 (+2.19%)
  3. Italy 178,972 (+1.73%)
  4. France 154,098 (+0.73%)
  5. Germany 145,742 (+1.40%)
  6. UK 121,173 (+5.08%)
  7. Turkey 86,306 (+4.83%)
  8. China 83,817 (+0.02%)
  9. Iran 82,211 (+1.66%)
  10. Russia 42,853 (+16.47%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Percentage change over 24 hours



Shakespearean Folly

“Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.”

When William Shakespeare wrote those lines from King Lear in the early 17th century – possibly while in quarantine during an outbreak of the plague – he could have been referring to any number of world leaders today.

Take Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, for example.

As international public health experts called for lockdowns and social distancing amid a pandemic that has now infected more than two million worldwide, Lukashenko played hockey in a stadium full of onlookers.

The cold rink – or vodka – would kill off the virus, he said, calling fears over COVID-19 a “psychosis,” the Hill reported.

Those same health experts warned that the former Soviet republic was entering a “concerning” new phase when the virus was expected to exponentially spread, Reuters wrote.

Belarus might get lucky. Unfortunately, however, the world already has numerous examples of how less developed, economically struggling authoritarian-led countries have fared in the current crisis.

In Turkey, for example, “illiberalism and economic mismanagement” under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have worsened the impact of the coronavirus, the Washington Post reported. Erdogan has had to keep factories and construction sites open, threatening to worsen the spread of the virus. He does so to keep Turkey’s economy going or else the remaining foreign investors that weren’t repelled by his suppression of political dissent in recent years will disappear, too.

On Sunday, Turkey ranked as the 8th most affected country in the world with more than 82,000 cases of COVID-19 recorded and almost 2,000 deaths.

Meanwhile, hospitals in Venezuela lacked soap and running water before the coronavirus appeared, noted National Public Radio. President Nicolas Maduro’s government holds tight control of data and that has made it impossible for doctors to prepare. Now they are readying the country’s 80 intensive care beds, aware they aren’t sufficient in number, the BBC added. Forget about ventilators: What few exist won’t be able to operate effectively given the unstable electricity supply.

In Turkmenistan, it’s impossible to know how people are doing: President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has banished the word “coronavirus” and all information about it, reported Reporters Without Borders.

A recent Brookings Institution comparison between North and South Korea might put an even finer point on the difference between closed and economically crumbling societies and open, wealthy ones. North Korea denies that any cases exist in the country while, curiously, quarantining 10,000 people. South Korea engaged medical companies to produce tests while launching a new public health campaign. The latter has become a model for the world.

There are numerous other examples, in Tanzania, in Brazil, in Burundi, and elsewhere where reckless leaders with an authoritarian bent have played chicken with the virus. Even so, it doesn’t mean that open democratic societies have dealt with the pandemic in a timely or always effective manner, analysts say, pointing to Italy, the United Kingdom and others that reacted late. Inversely, some authoritarian countries such as China and Singapore handled the pandemic well, they note.

Still, leadership has made a difference, analysts say. It also created some unlikely heroes, heads of state and governments around the world who stepped up. Interestingly, many of these leaders such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Australia’s Scott Morrison and France’s Emmanuel Macron, saw their tepid (or worse) pre-virus approval numbers skyrocket when they moved to take decisive action to contain the virus: Voters followed their lead willingly and virus infections and death rates declined.

One of the most hailed is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who saw support for her government surge for the first time in years.

During the pandemic, she evoked totalitarianism to help explain to Germans why voluntarily submitting to lockdowns and social distancing were important for the wellbeing of everyone in the country.

“For someone like me, for whom freedom of travel and movement were a hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified by absolute necessity,” said Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany.

It worked: Germany has had one of the lowest per capita death rates in the world, and is starting to ease restrictions this week.

Her people trust her. That goes a long way in a crisis.



Cleaning House

The United States and Britain over the weekend condemned the arrest of more than a dozen pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, saying it jeopardizes Hong Kong’s autonomy, the Associated Press reported.

Authorities arrested at least 14 people for participating in last year’s massive anti-government protests over a bill that would have allowed extradition to China.

Western officials said the arrests violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration agreement that dates to 1997 when the British colony was handed over to China.

Chinese authorities, however, countered that foreign countries have no right to interfere. Officials were merely enforcing the law against unauthorized assembly, they added.


Stranger Than Fiction

Lesotho’s Prime Minister Thomas Thabane deployed the army briefly over the weekend to “restore order” as demands grow for him to resign over the alleged murder of his estranged wife, Agence France-Presse reported.

Thabane said the deployment was necessary to enforce a 24-day coronavirus lockdown in the country. He also accused unnamed law enforcement officials of attempting to destabilize the country.

Thabane’s move follows a rejection by the constitutional court Friday of his decision in March to suspend parliament. The prime minister shut down parliament after lawmakers passed a bill barring him from calling fresh elections if he were to lose a looming no-confidence vote.

The political turmoil ignited after police accused Thabane of being complicit in the 2017 murder of his wife, Lipolelo Thabane.

Thabane’s current wife Maesaiah Thabane, 43, whom he married two months after his first wife’s death, is considered a co-conspirator and has already been charged.


Freedom of Infection

Hundreds of people – including the president – took to the streets of the capital, Brasilia, Sunday demanding the army intervene to reopen the country, Al Jazeera reported.

The protest follows others over the weekend in which demonstrators in major cities demanded state governors resign over lockdown measures to contain the pandemic, the broadcaster reported separately.

President Jair Bolsonaro set off a furor last week by firing his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had been promoting isolation measures to curb the outbreak. Meanwhile, polls show Mandetta is far more popular with the public than the president.

Bolsonaro has been a fierce critic of the stay-at-home policies, arguing that they would harm the economy.

The country of 211 million has the highest number of confirmed cases in Latin America with more than 37,000 infected and more than 2,400 deaths.


Burning to Create

Archaeological records have shown that agriculture emerged in Europe and Asia around 10,000 years ago, and with that development, societies became more complex: Ancient man began practicing arts and crafts, and developing complex tools.

For some reason scientists couldn’t explain, the island of New Guinea, which developed agriculture around the same time, remained more primitive, New Scientist reported.

However, researcher Ben Shaw and his team recently analyzed a trove of artifacts including a stone carving of a face, stone tools and an ochre-stained rock used for dyeing organic fibers discovered in New Guinea in 2016. They are estimated to be between 4,200 and 5,000 years old.

The authors noted in their study that the artifacts were made from stones from nearby quarries, suggesting that the island’s prehistoric inhabitants made them themselves.

Shaw explained that the new find shows that culture and craftsmanship developed on their own in New Guinea. He added that the artifacts suggest that the transition from agriculture to complex culture is a more widespread human trend than previously believed.

“It’s been argued that social complexity didn’t come with agriculture in New Guinea but now we’ve identified similar leaps and bounds as seen in Europe and Asia,” he said.

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