The World Today for April 28, 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 988,469 (+2.33%)
  2. Spain 229,422 (+1.23%)
  3. Italy 199,414 (+0.88%)
  4. France 165,977 (+2.32%)
  5. Germany 158,758 (+0.63%)
  6. UK 158,348 (+2.80%)
  7. Turkey 112,261 (+1.93%)
  8. Iran 91,472 (+1.10%)
  9. Russia 87,147 (+7.66%)
  10. China 83,938 (+0.03%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Percentage change over 24 hours

NEED TO KNOW

VENEZUELA

Less Than Nothing

Venezuela was already faring poorly when the novel coronavirus hit.

As the BBC wrote, the Latin American country was an economic basket case dogged by hyperinflation and political crises. The health system was “on its knees.”

Still, President Nicólas Maduro is a survivor.

In 2018, he was reelected in a “sham” election as protests were growing against his rule. Following that, the US and most of the Americas, Western Europe and others recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president.

More recently, Maduro has moved to consolidate his rule in the wake of the campaign to oust him. And the campaign, in some ways, has revved up.

The US recently ordered California-based oil giant Chevron to stop pumping in Venezuela by December, CNN reported. The company had previously been permitted to operate in the country despite American sanctions. The price of oil has plunged. Corruption and power outages already made drilling in the country inefficient. But the prospect of losing even more crucial foreign revenue was a body blow to Maduro’s administration.

The move was the latest in President Trump’s maximalist stance toward Venezuela, where Maduro leads a socialistic government allied with Russia and Cuba, a Washington Post op-ed explained. Last month, US prosecutors charged Maduro and senior government officials in a series of criminal cases in New York, Florida and Washington. The US government is also offering a $60 million bounty for information leading to an arrest of Maduro and other top officials.

US officials compared the case against Maduro to the 1988 indictments of Panamanian strongman General Manuel Noriega, who was then the country’s de facto head of state, and who was convicted and jailed for drug trafficking and money laundering.

Revelations that Maduro might be illegally trading gold with Switzerland, as Swissinfo reported, illustrates how his room to maneuver has been shrinking.

Meanwhile, amid shortages, starvation and the pandemic, a country “drowning in oil” is now seeing shortages as the price on the black market spiked to $10 a gallon, Bloomberg reported.

“The regime is in survival mode,” Wilson Center Fellow Michael Penfold told the New York Times. “The country is entering into a very fragile equilibrium that’s going to be increasingly difficult to maintain.”

Between further economic losses and the coronavirus pandemic, Maduro has even assented to secret talks with Guaidó so the two might work together rather than compete in developing a response to the pandemic, reported Reuters.

Last week, for example, as Maduro struggled to retain power, Guaidó touted his plans to fight the virus in an online event streamed with the Atlantic Council. But, of course, he’s on the sidelines. His pronouncements might shame Maduro but they have to bear fruit, argued political analyst Ramon Collado in an Orlando Sentinel opinion piece.

Add to the mix the Venezuelans suffering at home and those who fled the country in recent years – they are especially in a tight spot, said analysts who spoke to the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Living as migrants in neighboring countries like Colombia, they can’t easily access housing and services, the Financial Times reported. Returning home requires an investment of time and money they don’t have in order to travel in buses or cars where they might become infected.

That’s why Venezuelan migrant Richard de Jesus was forced to walk along a highway leading out of Colombia’s capital Bogota with his pregnant wife, carrying their belongings on a small baby stroller, detailed Al Jazeera.

They walked for five days, for 248 miles, from the city of Cali. They have 373 miles to go to the border. They have no choice – there is no way to earn money anymore during the lockdown in Colombia. Which means there will be nowhere to live and nothing to eat.

The problem is, what they are returning to is less than nothing.

WANT TO KNOW

JAPAN

The Devil You Know

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party won a special parliamentary election, a sign that the opposition has failed to gain traction despite criticism of Abe’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Bloomberg reported Monday.

Yoichi Fukazawa of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party won more than 60 percent of the vote in a special election for a lower house of parliament seat representing Shizuoka prefecture held Sunday, easily defeating his opponent – who was backed by four opposition parties.

The victory is a good sign for Abe, whose popularity has dropped over his response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Nevertheless, support for opposition parties – currently in the single digits – has not increased during the pandemic, meaning that Abe has a solid chance to win another general election.

Following the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, analysts believe that Abe might use the gap in the calendar to call an election in the summer.

BURUNDI

Fear and Loathing

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Monday that Burundi’s government is using “fear and repression” against political opponents ahead of the country’s national elections on May 20, United Press International reported.

The activist group said security forces and members of the youth wing of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s governing party have been targeting members of the opposition, independent civil organizations and the news media with “near-total impunity.”

Interviews with victims and official sources by the group found intimidation and physical attacks and murder committed against political opponents in six of Burundi’s 18 provinces over the past six months.

Nkurunziza announced earlier this month that the elections would go ahead, despite the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

He said last year that he would not seek re-election, instead passing the mantle to his close ally, Evariste Ndayishimiye, as the candidate representing the governing CNDD-FDD Party.

SAUDI ARABIA

Step-by-Step

Saudi Arabia moved to abolish the death penalty for minors, part of a series of reforms putting an end to highly controversial practices in the ultra-conservative kingdom, the Associated Press reported.

The latest royal decree by King Salman comes a few days after the country’s Supreme Court issued a directive that ended public flogging.

Under the reform, death sentences for minors will be commuted to prison terms of up to 10 years. The decree notes, however, that terrorism-related cases involving minors will be sentenced differently, without providing further detail.

Last year, Saudi Arabia executed a young man convicted of offenses related to his participation in anti-government protests when he was 16 years-old.

The decision is part of the kingdom’s wave of reforms pushed by Salman’s son and heir Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to modernize Saudi Arabia and change the nation’s image globally.

Despite the reforms, the crown prince has been criticized for his crackdown on dissenters, activists, writers and reformers – including moderate clerics.

His reformist reputation was in doubt in 2018 following the death of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by agents working for the crown prince.

DISCOVERIES

The Smell of Dirt

There’s a peculiar earthy smell that comes from soil after heavy rain.

Most think it’s just the smell of wet dirt. Scientists, however, say it’s geosmin, a chemical produced from bacteria in the soil.

Since its discovery in the 1960s, researchers weren’t exactly sure of its purpose. But a recent study has shed light into the musty waft, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

A research team wrote that geosmin is produced by the bacteria genus Streptomyces.

They suspected that the odor was used to attract animals or insects as a way for the bacteria to use them to transport their spores elsewhere.

In their experiments, the team set up sticky traps in a forest in Sweden – some laced with Streptomyces and others with soy flour – to see which woodland critters approached.

Their results revealed that tiny arthropods known as springtails would swarm the traps with bacteria after catching a whiff of geosmin.

The authors explained there was a symbiotic relationship between the two that began more than 400 million years ago: The geosmin signaled that it was dinner time and the springtails would then proliferate the spores via their excrement.

“This is analogous to birds eating the fruits of plants,” said co-author Mark Buttner. “They get food but they also distribute the seeds, which benefits the plants.”

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