The World Today for April 22, 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 825,306 (+4.74%)
  2. Spain 204,178 (+1.98%)
  3. Italy 183,957 (+1.51%)
  4. France 159,300 (+1.79%)
  5. Germany 148,453 (+0.94%)
  6. UK 130,184 (+3.44%)
  7. Turkey 95,591 (+5.07%)
  8. Iran 84,802 (+1.55%)
  9. China 83,864 (+0.02%)
  10. Russia 52,763 (+11.97%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Percentage change over 24 hours



Game of Blame

Bill Gates pilloried President Donald Trump for suspending funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) last week as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage globally. The move was “…dangerous…,” tweeted the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, the Washington Post reported.

The president says he wants to investigate the United Nations agency’s “role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus,” wrote CNN. The US is the WHO’s biggest contributor, providing more than $400 million of the Geneva-based organization’s annual budget of $4.8 billion.

Trump and others have accused the WHO of being too deferential to China. Japan’s deputy prime minister has called the WHO the “China Health Organization.” And almost a million people have signed an online petition calling for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to resign. Meanwhile, a group of New Yorkers has filed suit in US federal court against WHO claiming gross negligence in “covering up” the outbreak, Reuters reported Tuesday.

They have a point.

In January, for example, when the scope of the coronavirus pandemic was expanding but not yet massive outside of China, WHO officials appeared to directly quote Chinese government statements downplaying the threat. As the Atlantic magazine explained, they claimed there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus, echoing communist officials in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus.

And sometimes, WHO officials kept praising China’s handling of the outbreak while dodging questions about worrying aspects of the Chinese response. Moreover, in the early days of the crisis, the WHO amplified Chinese claims and figures without signaling that they could be inaccurate. The organization was slow to declare a public health emergency and slow to use the term “pandemic,” say experts like David Fidler of the Council on Foreign Relations who has worked with the WHO for years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping only allowed a WHO mission to enter the country after meeting with Ghebreyesus personally at the end of January. The meeting fueled speculation that Xi was putting pressure on WHO not to embarrass the country.

However, defenders of the WHO say they must work within the rules, and with the countries. They add that it was impossible for WHO officials to know when China was not open with what was happening within its borders.

For example, a bombshell Associated Press report found that Xi covered up the spread of the coronavirus for six days – Jan. 14-20 – at the beginning of the pandemic, a period when thousands were likely infected because of a massive banquet for tens of thousands held in Wuhan and because of travel for the Lunar New Year. It further lays the blame for the current global crisis on China’s shoulders.

Critics of Trump say that the WHO is an easy target in an election year.

Meanwhile, the Guardian’s editorial board, found it ironic that Trump was critical of China. In January, the president praised China’s transparency in dealing with the public health emergency. Later, he downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus, too.

Regardless, health experts around the world told Science magazine that cutting WHO aid was shortsighted. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was blunt. “Blaming others won’t help,” tweeted Mass. “The virus knows no borders.”

Some believe that retreating from WHO opens the door for more Chinese domination of the organization.

And German lawmaker Norbert Röttgen said on Twitter the WHO’s treatment of China is “concerning” but added that freezing funding “will harm those countries most that are least equipped to help themselves.”

Regardless, some want to punish China, Yahoo Finance wrote. Others want to punish the WHO. If both had been honest and effective, many might have lived, the world might not be in lockdown and an economic catastrophe might not be looming.

These folks might be right. But the middle of a crisis is not usually the best time to look backward.



Virus: 1, Privacy: 0

The French government said it would allow lawmakers to vote on a plan to launch a contact tracing app it says will help in the fight against the novel coronavirus, Reuters reported.

The government relented Tuesday following pressure from legislators, including members of President Emmanuel Macron’s party: Initially, lawmakers were to only hold a debate on the plan, scheduled for next week.

The smartphone app would warn users if they encounter anyone infected with the virus, a plan intended to help contain the epidemic and ease lockdown measures in the country.

The tracking issue, however, has proved divisive in Europe due to concerns over data abuse and privacy violations.

American tech company Apple has so far refused French demands to lift technical barriers to make the app detectable via Bluetooth even when it’s not active.


Playing Deaf

China on Tuesday defended its naming of 80 islands and other geographical features in the disputed South China Sea, a move likely to anger its neighbors who also have laid claim to the territory, Agence France-Presse reported.

Over the weekend, Vietnam criticized China after Beijing claimed to have established two administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly islands.

Vietnam said the move “seriously violated” its territorial sovereignty but Chinese officials countered that the islands are its “innate territories.”

The Chinese government has repeatedly asserted its sovereignty in the sea by building up a heavy military presence and constructing artificial islands.

Analysts said that China’s actions constitute a violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which it has ratified.

Earlier this month, Vietnam lodged an official complaint with China and the United Nations, saying that Beijing illegally sank a fishing boat near the Paracel Islands, killing eight.


A Start

Allies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido have started exploratory talks to create a detente amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, sources told Reuters Tuesday.

The unnamed sources said that there is no clear agenda yet, with “proposals coming and going” between Maduro allies and members of the four principal opposition parties.

They added that the talks show that allies of both Maduro and Guaido remain unconvinced that they can defeat the other as the country battles the pandemic and US economic sanctions meant to force Maduro out.

As of Tuesday, there are more than 280 confirmed cases in the country and 10 deaths.

Activists and rights groups have previously urged both leaders to seek a truce to secure the delivery of aid and boost gasoline imports.

Last year, Norway-brokered talks collapsed when the opposition demanded new presidential elections, prompting Maduro’s group to walk away in protest of US sanctions.


Wishing Wells

Cursing someone today usually involves a few choice words, usually because of some perceived misbehavior.

But in ancient times, the Greeks took cursing to a whole other level.

Archaeologists realized this after recently discovering 30 curse tablets in a 2,500 year-old well in an ancient cemetery near Athens, Newsweek reported. The tablets were engraved with messages to the gods of the underworld begging them to bring misfortune to others.

Curses were quite common in ancient Greece and Rome mostly used to jinx rivals. Most used them during lawsuits, such as to prevent someone from testifying.

The practice sometimes required placing the malevolent tablets in graves to send the gods a message, but wells were also considered a route to the underworld.

Archaeologist Jutta Stroszeck told Haaretz that the tablets in the well dated back to the fourth century BC, during the rule of Demetrius of Phalerum.

Demetrius implemented a new law that prohibited placing curse tablets in graves, which forced curse givers to find other ways.

She suggested that the unknown perpetrators dumped the curses in the well, as well as coins, cooking pots and vessels to please the nymphs lurking there.

“Water, and in particular drinking water, was sacred,” she said. “In Greek religion, it was protected by nymphs, who could become very mischievous when their water was treated badly.”

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