The World Today for May 15, 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 1,417,889 (+1.95%)
  2. Spain 272,646 (+0.57%)
  3. Russia 252,245 (+4.12%)
  4. UK 234,441 (+1.50%)
  5. Italy 223,096 (+0.45%)
  6. Brazil 203,165 (+6.85%)
  7. France 178,994 (+0.45%)
  8. Germany 174,478 (+0.22%)
  9. Turkey 144,749 (+1.14%)
  10. Iran 114,533 (+1.60%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Percentage change over 24 hours



Ending Savagery

Sudan was fighting the coronavirus, inflation and political instability as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began late last month.

A spike in infections led the African country’s so-called transitional government comprised of military and civilian leaders to order a total lockdown, Voice of America reported. They had already banned travel to and from the capital of Khartoum, but folks were flouting that rule and other measures.

Yet somehow, amid these troubles, the conservative country managed to also outlaw female genital mutilation, a traditional practice that impacts nine out of 10 Sudanese women between the ages of 15 and 49. Offenders face maximum sentences of three years in prison.

The new law won’t necessarily result in zero cases overnight, CBS News reported. But it’s a remarkable step. United Nations officials have estimated that the practice could end worldwide within 10 years if young people mobilize to end it. Now Sudanese youths have the law on their side.

The change illustrates how Sudan has evolved since the overthrow of former President Omar al-Bashir’s autocratic regime a year ago amid a worsening economic crisis.

Al Jazeera explained how al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup and transformed Sudan from a relatively stable nation that maintained good relations with its neighbors into a pariah state that provided safe haven to terrorists like Osama Bin Laden. This fascinating story in the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat gave details on the Al Qaeda leader’s time in the country before he left for Afghanistan in 1996.

“(He)…never expected to be expelled by a fundamentalist regime that had adopted a hardline Islamic ideology opposed to the West and Americans,” the publication wrote, noting that the Sudanese tried to hand over Bin Laden to the US government.

Now, imprisoned in Khartoum to face local counts of corruption, al-Bashir also faces charges at the International Criminal Court of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The economic crisis, meanwhile, goes on. Food and fuel shortages are commonplace. Foreign investment is sparse in part because the US still lists Sudan as a state sponsor of terror.

Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the economy is likely to fall further. Foremost among the challenges to rebuilding the country after al-Bashir are the 1.6 million internally displaced people who still can’t go home because armed bands continue to roam their native regions, the United Nations noted.

Disputes over how to deal with the coronavirus have also caused a rift between the country’s civilian and military authorities. When the civilian prime minister ordered a general to cancel Friday prayers in Khartoum, the general refused. Rumors of a possible coup spread. Some al-Bashir supporters have called for the release of former regime members as the crisis has continued.

Still, just over a year after protests led to the once-unthinkable overthrow of its despot, Sudan might have a long way to go to recover its political stability, resolve its conflicts and rebuild its economy, in essence, transform into the country it was becoming before al-Bashir took control. But taking action on a practice that savages millions of women and girls is a good start.



On Crutches

The head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) resigned unexpectedly Thursday, a move that increases uncertainty regarding cross-border commerce as trade wars and the novel coronavirus pandemic continue to rage, the New York Times reported.

The Geneva-based WTO said Roberto Azevedo will step down as director-general effective Aug. 31. His term was scheduled to end in September 2021.

Azevedo has been a strong advocate of free trade and international cooperation, frequently clashing with US President Donald Trump who has shown a preference for bilateral power politics, the newspaper wrote.

The organization, formed in 1995 to bring order to international trade relations, saw its activities become more limited since late last year. That’s because the US government refused to approve nominees to fill vacancies on a crucial appeals panel that rules on trade disputes.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has delayed negotiations on issues such as fishing subsidies and has made it unlikely that agreements will be reached before next year.


Playing Hardball

Britain hardened its stance toward a “hard Brexit” Thursday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the EU failed to agree on key points related to their future trading relationship, Bloomberg reported.

UK officials said the bloc was asking “far more from the UK than they have from other sovereign countries with whom they have reached free trade agreements.”

“(The) Cabinet agreed that we won’t agree to demands for us to give up our rights as an independent state,” a Johnson spokesman said.

The latest round of negotiations ends Friday.

The British government has said it will walk away from the talks if it believes insufficient progress has been made.

Britain’s exit without a deal could lead to the introduction of customs checks and quotas for the first time in a generation.


Cutting Off Your Nose…

Burundi ordered the expulsion of four national World Health Organization (WHO) officials less than a week before the country holds presidential elections amid the coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reported.

The government declared WHO country head Walter Kazadi Mulombo and three other staff members as “persona non grata” without elaborating.

The decision was criticized by opposition leaders and health officials in Africa, who warned that holding an election during a pandemic risks increasing infections.

The country of 11 million people has 27 cases and one death but testing remains very low – Burundi has only administered 527 tests. Some locals say they believe the number of infections is higher but fear to speak out because they could be targeted and punished, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, large crowds have been gathering during the election campaign. Burundi has no lockdown measures in place, unlike many other African nations.

The upcoming elections will pit President Pierre Nkurunziza’s hand-picked successor, Evariste Ndayishimiye, against Agathon Rwasa, deputy chairman of the National Assembly, as well as others from the opposition. Nkurunziza’s government has been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses and has previously expelled other representatives of international organizations.


Trading Up, Going Down

It’s not uncommon these days to see a hermit crab carrying a portion of a lightbulb or another piece of glass or plastic as its home: The crabs often trade up, swapping their shell-homes for bigger ones when they become available.

But now, a team of researchers has found that plastics in the oceans are affecting marine life’s cognitive behavior, the Guardian reported.

In a recent study, researcher Gareth Arnott and his team conducted several experiments on two groups of female hermit crabs and noted a change of behavior among hermit crabs exposed to microplastics – plastic pieces that are 5 millimeters or smaller.

One group was placed in a water tank that contained tiny polyethylene beads at concentration levels close to those found in the environment. The other was placed in a tank without any plastic pollution.

The team then removed each crab from their shells and placed them into smaller shells that were half the ideal weight for each crab. Finally, they offered both groups optimal-sized shells to move into.

The results showed that about 60 percent of the plastic-free crabs would move to the new home, but only 31 percent of the exposed crabs changed shells.

The authors believe that microplastics are affecting crab’s decision-making regarding finding a better home.

“We hypothesize that either some aspect of the polyethylene is getting into them to affect their decision-making, or else it is an indirect effect that the presence of the plastic in the tank might be influencing their feeding behavior, for example,” Arnott said. “Based on the striking finding (in this study), this would suggest that there could be a long-term impact in the natural world…”

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