May 19, 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 1,508,957 (+1.49%)
  2. Russia 299,941 (+3.19%)
  3. UK 255,368 (+4.23%)
  4. Brazil 247,709 (+2.75%)
  5. Spain 231,606 (+0.39%)
  6. Italy 225,886 (+0.20%)
  7. France 180,051 (+0.20%)
  8. Germany 177,289 (+0.42%)
  9. Turkey 150,593 (+0.77%)
  10. Iran 122,492 (+1.91%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Percentage change over 24 hours

NEED TO KNOW

IRAQ

Hobbling Forward

The new prime minister of Iraq, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, appears to be a reformer. As the Christian Science Monitor wrote, he has ordered the release of non-violent protesters, pledged to compensate victims of violence and track down renegade militias. He has reinstated popular counterterrorism leaders.

But al-Kadhimi can’t reform away the coronavirus.

The pandemic as well as the plunging price of oil has hobbled the Iraqi economy, threatening to undo the progress the war-torn country has made since the American invasion of 2003 and the rise of Islamic State in the years thereafter, reported the Washington Post.

Of particular concern is the way that Islamic State has used the coronavirus and consequent economic crisis to rebuild their flagging forces. A top Norwegian military official recently sounded alarm bells about the resurgence of a militant group that controlled vast swaths of Iraq and Syria until a combined international effort succeeded in toppling their so-called caliphate last year.

According to the Associated Press, Lt. Col. Stein Grongstad said Islamic State fighters, ironically, were less susceptible to infection because they were holed up in remote agricultural areas.

Grongstad’s comments probably frightened Iraqis like Layla Eido, 17, an ethnic Yazidi girl whom Islamic State fighters abducted in 2014. She recently returned home after spending time in quarantine in Syria, Agence France-Presse reported.

Another priority is convincing the disgruntled public that things will change. Protests erupted in Baghdad and across the country’s south in October when frustrated Iraqis took to the streets to decry rampant government corruption, unemployment and poor services, the AP reported. Human rights groups say at least 600 people died in the following three months at the hands of Iraqi security forces who used ammunition and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

Even though the protestors have mostly gone home due to the pandemic, on May 10, demonstrators burned tires on a key bridge leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of Iraq’s government. They say they reject the new leader – the third to be chosen as prime minister since Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned under pressure from mass protests in December – as a tool of the establishment which they want removed.

Meanwhile, Iraq is trying to cut oil production as part of an OPEC plan to reduce supply and therefore increase prices. But Reuters noted that the country’s contracts with international companies like BP, Exxon Mobil, Italy-based Eni and Russia’s Lukoil make it hard for those cuts to occur. In fact, those agreements stipulate that Iraq pay fixed fees to the drillers no matter what the price of oil fetches on international markets, further gutting the government’s revenues.

The US-Iraqi relationship is also a vexing question. The American drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani led many Iraqi security officials to believe the US was prepared to abandon its relationship with Iraq, the Hill reported.

Even so, President Donald Trump has signaled his willingness to provide Iraq with assistance. Some aspects of Iranian influence in Iraq might also be waning, Foreign Policy said. The European Council on Foreign Relations hoped the situation was ripe for a reset between the US and Iran in Iraq. Already, Iran and the US reportedly made a deal to bring al-Kadhimi to office, the Middle East Eye reported.

Still, will that deal help? All the Financial Times could conclude was that al-Kadhimi faces a daunting task. His first priority is making sure the public health emergency doesn’t make everything else moot.

WANT TO KNOW

HONG KONG

Cracking Down

Chaos and scuffles erupted among lawmakers in Hong Kong’s House Committee Monday, sparking concerns over China’s increasing influence on the semi-autonomous territory, Voice of America reported.

Clashes initially broke out last week between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing factions after the latter used legal maneuvering to take control of the committee.

The situation escalated Monday when pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee was elected as the committee’s chair. Security forces dragged pro-democracy lawmakers out of the chamber.

Following Lee’s election, the committee will now be able to push forward a draconian law that would penalize anyone insulting China’s national anthem with up to three years in prison and fines of more than $6,000.

While the lawmakers clashed, 15 pro-democracy figures appeared in court to face charges for organizing and participating in last year’s anti-government protests.

The city has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems,” since Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997. However, many believe the mainland government is moving to roll back that autonomy.

WORLD

Tepid and Intrepid

The World Health Organization pledged Monday to begin an independent review of the global coronavirus response, with a focus more toward managing the pandemic than its origins, Reuters reported

China – which has opposed potential probes in the past – pledged $2 billion over the next two years to help handle the impact of the virus, especially in developing countries.

The amount is nearly equivalent to the WHO’s entire annual program budget last year, and more than compensates for the loss of $400 million, the United States’ annual contribution: US President Donald Trump suspended the funding last month, arguing that the organization has become too China-centric.

China, meanwhile, was initially hostile to the review but changed its course after international support for the initiative grew to include Russia, Turkey, and most European and African countries, the Washington Post reported. It also was mollified as the focus of the review is on international collaboration to manage the pandemic, with limited emphasis on questioning its source.

MYANMAR

A Bust, a Boom

Myanmar seized “unprecedented” amounts of methylfentanyl in what is considered Asia’s biggest drug bust in decades, sparking worries that one of the world’s biggest drug crises is about to grow exponentially, CNN reported.

The drug bust came after a three-month operation that centered around a village in Myanmar’s northeast Shan state.

Police seized nearly 200 million methamphetamine tablets, more than 500 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine, as well as 990 gallons of liquid methylfentanyl, a chemical used to make synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

This is the first time authorities have discovered such a massive amount of fentanyl or one of its equivalents in Southeast Asia.

Analysts say that major criminal organizations in Asia are moving away from plant-based drugs like heroin to cheaper and easy-to-make synthetic drugs like methamphetamine. The result has been an unprecedented boom in the synthetic drug trade. The methamphetamine market in East and Southeast Asia alone is worth as much as $61.4 billion a year, the UNODC said.

They believe drug producers are conducting operations in the Golden Triangle, the shared border region between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The area is ruled by warlords, and is notorious for its lawlessness. It was until recently considered the biggest heroin-producing region in the world.

DISCOVERIES

Coming Together

The collapse of the Roman Empire was a pivotal moment in history but little is known on how it impacted the everyday lives of people in the territories.

In a recent paper, researchers wrote how a tiny settlement in 470 CE in what is now Hungary adapted to the volatile period and even accepted newcomers into their community, Science Alert reported.

The team studied the buried remains found in the cemetery of Mözs-Icsei dűlő. They used strontium isotope analysis to understand how the community came together and evolved.

The results revealed three distinct populations across two or three generations buried in the fifth century cemetery.

The first generation was comprised of founders, who shared a local diet as well as burial practices that included Roman-style brick graves, with Roman and Hun-style grave goods.

The second group comprised of a group of foreign individuals who arrived a decade after the founders and practiced head-shaping – using cloth bindings in infancy to elongate the skull.

The third generation revealed that both cultures shared their customs with each other, including head-shaping and burial practices.

“The community…accepted and integrated men, women, and children of different geographical and cultural backgrounds during the two to three generations of its existence,” they wrote in their paper.

The authors said this is an example of how cultures come together during periods of strife and merge their cultures to build something new.