June 18, 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 numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US 2,163,290 (+1.20%)
  2. Brazil 955,377 (+3.49%)
  3. Russia 552,549 (+1.44%)
  4. India 366,946 (+3.64%)
  5. UK 300,717 (+0.37%)
  6. Spain 244,683 (+0.15%)
  7. Peru 240,908 (+1.58%)
  8. Italy 237,828 (+0.14%)
  9. Chile 220,628 (+19.61%)**
  10. Iran 195,051 (+1.36%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Spike due to a readjustment in the number of cases confirmed

NEED TO KNOW

SERBIA

Catbird Seat on the Danube

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic held a virtual campaign rally in May that involved him standing alone in a room containing more than 100 screens. His followers clapped and cheered as he delivered a speech exhorting voters to reelect him on June 21.

Some Serbs thought the event was “dystopian and creepy,” National Public Radio reported.

As voters emerge from a coronavirus lockdown to cast their ballots, Vucic, a rightwing populist, is expected to reap the rewards of keeping Serbia’s death toll low, shepherding the economy through the crisis and utilizing the national media to keep his face on television while sidelining opposition figures, reported Agence France-Presse.

Vucic might sail to victory in the current climate.

Pro-government and opposition forces staged hunger strikes in May, Radio Free Europe reported. The former called for an investigation of a rightwing attack on the health minister. The latter demanded the election be postponed, a move that would have benefitted opposition candidates if it had occurred.

Meanwhile, a number of war criminals from the conflicts that wracked the former republics of Yugoslavia in the 1990s are also running for office, highlighting how Serbia has yet to address the genocide and human rights violations that its soldiers perpetrated in those dark days, wrote the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Regardless, the incumbent president will face a hefty foreign policy agenda, too. Serbia is not in the European Union but it’s in talks to join the bloc. The EU and especially Germany provide the most aid to Serbia.

The country is also a close ally of Russia, which opposed the NATO-led bombing on Serbia that helped Kosovo – a former Serbian province with an ethnic Albanian majority – secede. Serbia still doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s first foreign visit since the coronavirus pandemic began was to Serbia, the Russian state-owned Tass news agency wrote.

China has also provided Serbia with crucial financing in recent years, wrote Reuters.

A lot of world leaders, in other words, are courting the Balkan nation.

In an interview with the Serbian news outlet B92, former US Ambassador to Serbia, William Montgomery, wrote that Vucic is the only person politically powerful enough to put an end to the Kosovo question, a key obstacle to joining the EU.

Vucic is likely to retain power. And he’s also likely to use it. It’s not an overstatement to say he holds the fate of the country in his hands.

WANT TO KNOW

SYRIA

Tightening the Noose

The Syrian government faced another blow Wednesday after the United States imposed new sanctions aimed at weakening the government of President Bashar Assad, Al Jazeera reported.

The Caesar Act authorizes the most severe sanctions against Bashar’s administration since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.

The new measures would penalize companies and donors anywhere in the world, including neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, who “knowingly, directly or indirectly, provides significant construction or engineering services to the Government of Syria.”

Assad’s regime called the new sanctions “economic terrorism” and said they intend to starve the Syrian people.

Existing sanctions, government corruption and the pandemic have all taken a toll on the war-torn country.

Recently, Syrians have been taking to the streets of government-controlled cities to protest the increase in prices and the currency’s collapse.

Despite the odds, officials said they will survive the new sanctions “no matter how much pressure (the United States) exerts.”

EUROPEAN UNION

Fair Is Fair

The European Commission wants to propose a measure that would give the bloc a bigger say in transactions involving foreign state-backed firms’ purchases of stakes in European companies, CNBC reported Wednesday.

Underpinning the proposal are growing fears over unfair competition – particularly advantages by Chinese companies that are subsidized by the state – as numerous EU companies struggle with liquidity amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need the right tools to ensure that foreign subsidies do not distort our market, just as we do with national subsidies,” said European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager.

France and Germany have been pushing for such changes. A draft proposal is expected to be ready by the fall.

Under current legislation, governments buying stakes in European companies need to be approved by the Commission. The rules, however, do not cover firms that receive state support.

The EU’s executive arm also said that in 2016, three percent of European companies were owned or controlled by non-EU investors – which represents 35 percent of total assets.

INDONESIA

Freedom Versus Treason

An Indonesian court found seven Papuan pro-independence activists guilty of treason Wednesday for organizing anti-racism protests last year and calling for a referendum on independence for Papua, the Associated Press reported.

The court sentenced the defendants to nearly a year in prison despite calls from civil rights activists and politicians to free them.

The case has sparked debate over the Papua region, which became part of Indonesia in 1969 following a ballot backed by the UN that was seen by many as a sham.

The mineral-rich region has seen a low-level insurgency since then, with many Papuans opposing Indonesian rule.

Nearly 200 Papuan politicians, religious leaders and lawmakers have signed a petition asking President Joko Widodo to drop charges against the activists.

Meanwhile, dozens protested in front of the court demanding the release of the seven, arguing that the protests last year are reminiscent of the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The Papua protests ignited after videos circulated online showing police backed by soldiers calling Papuans “monkeys” and “dogs.”

More than 30 people died and hundreds of buildings and vehicles were torched during the weeks-long demonstrations.

DISCOVERIES

The Power of Negative Thinking

Negative thinking has become more ubiquitous since the pandemic started.

While worrying about the future is natural, a pessimistic attitude is actually unhealthy for the brain, according to new research.

Scientists found that repetitive negative thinking in later life can cause increasing levels of cognitive decline and lead to higher risks of dementia, CNN reported.

Researchers studied negative-thinking behaviors as well as levels of anxiety and depression in more than 350 people over the age of 55 over a two-year period.

Brain scans of about a third of the participants revealed higher deposits of tau and beta amyloid proteins, which cause Alzheimer’s disease – the most common type of dementia.

Researchers also found cognitive degradation was more common in depressed and anxious people but noted that protein levels didn’t increase in those that suffered long-term anxiety and depression.

The study shows for the first time the “biological relationship between repetitive negative thinking and Alzheimer’s pathology” and could help physicians in the future find better ways to assess risk and offer treatment.

The authors, however, pointed out that people can overcome their pessimistic outlook through mental training practices such as meditation to promote more positive thinking.

A previous study has shown that people with a “glass-half-full” outlook have a better chance of surviving or even evading cardiovascular diseases.