The World Today for June 26, 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: 2,422,312 (+1.72%)
  2. Brazil: 1,228,114 (+3.32%)
  3. Russia: 613,148 (0.00%)**
  4. India: 490,401 (+3.66%)
  5. UK: 309,455 (+0.36%)
  6. Peru: 268,602 (+1.48%)
  7. Chile: 259,064 (+1.83%)
  8. Spain: 247,486 (+0.16%)
  9. Italy: 239,706 (+0.12%)
  10. Iran: 215,096 (+1.22%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country



The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Saudi Arabia was forced to cancel Hajj this year due to the coronavirus for the first time in history.

The desert kingdom has around 80 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the Persian Gulf and the highest number among Arab nations, reported CBS News. A surge in cases after authorities relaxed lockdown rules added to fears that Muslim pilgrims visiting the holy city of Mecca annually for Hajj, as Islam obliges them to do at least once in their lifetimes if they can, might trigger a new outbreak.

The hajj was forecast to bring around 2.5 million pilgrims to Mecca in July, wrote Agence France-Presse. Now the country will allow in about 1,000, Saudi Arabia said Tuesday.

As one of the biggest mass events on the planet, Hajj is an economic blockbuster for Saudi Arabia, raking in billions. The rite also accords Saudi Arabia an enormous amount of prestige and influence in the Middle East. Canceling it undermines the kingdom’s image as the protector of the sacred sites of Islam.

“Saudi Arabia is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Royal United Services Institute Fellow Umar Karim in London told AFP. “The delay in announcing its decision shows it understands the political consequences of canceling the Hajj or reducing its scale.”

Many around the world are heartbroken, like Abdul-Halim al-Akoum, who saved for years to one day travel from his Lebanese mountain village to Mecca. He was to go this year.

“It is the dream of every Muslim believer to visit Mecca and do the hajj,” al-Akoum, 61 told the New York Times. “But the pandemic came with no warning and took away that dream.”

Since the first Hajj in 632, Muslims have traveled to Mecca in the face of hardship, adversity and disasters, gradually transforming the pilgrimage from an elite pursuit for the wealthy into one of the world’s largest Muslim gatherings, the newspaper said. Until just a century ago, it could take months to reach Mecca, a journey full of hardships and dangers crossing oceans, deserts and mountains. And once pilgrims reached Mecca, there was the threat of diseases such as cholera – and more recently MERS – as well as fires and stampedes.

As many of the world’s Muslims grapple with the all-but-canceled Hajj, Saudi Arabia, meanwhile is fighting its own fires – containing the pandemic and also the slide in its economy.

The price of oil, the country’s only resource, plunged like a stone in recent months. That hurts Saudi Arabia’s bottom line, in one sense. Leaders had to shut off offshore drilling recently, for example. But, in another sense, the country helped engineer that drop, wrote, in order to corner the market because it can withstand the lowest of prices.

Reacting and seizing an opportunity is not the same as progress, however. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who oversees the daily activities of the Saudi government, wanted to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil. He failed to achieve his goal of attracting $10 billion in foreign investment last year, for example, suggesting he will receive less in revenue this year due to the pandemic, Al Jazeera wrote.

Bin Salman has been working fast on his project because he knows it could take years for new Saudi businesses to grow and blossom into new hubs and sectors. The coronavirus threw a wrench into the plan.

Some of his reforms might backfire, too, like creating a new modern tax system to replace the subsidies that the kingdom’s oil-rich government has been doling out to its citizens for years. The Atlantic noted that he will have to deliver on government services if he collects taxes, unlike the current situation in which citizens contribute nothing and expect little say in how the country is run.

On Monday, the country relaxed the curfews in place to contain the pandemic, some of the last restrictions to be lifted from its lockdown in March. Now the work begins.



Rules? What Rules?

Russians began voting in a referendum Thursday that would allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in his job for the next 16 years, a vote heavily expected to go in the leader’s favor, Agence France-Presse reported.

Election officials opened polls across the country before the official July 1 vote to avoid overcrowding as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic. The vote is expected to take seven days. The original vote, scheduled for April 22, was postponed as the number of infections increased.

The referendum would essentially mean no term limits for Putin, allowing him to run twice more and potentially remain president until 2036. He has been in power since 1999, holding the positions of president and prime minister.

The vote comes a day after Russia held a massive World War II military: Analysts said the event was “a way to boost a sense of national pride and public support for Putin ahead of the vote,” CNBC reported.

Although his approval rating has dipped recently, Putin still maintains broad support, AFP wrote.


A Hollow Victory

Congo announced that it had beat the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history Thursday, nearly two years after the first case was discovered, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The victory lap comes as the country also battles the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 6,400 and killed 142 as of Thursday.

The second Ebola outbreak in Africa follows one in 2014 that raged for two years in West Africa that killed more than 11,300 people, mainly in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The latest outbreak infected more than 3,400 and killed 2,280 in the eastern Congolese provinces of North Kivu and Ituri. While aid workers and medical personnel had trouble preventing casualties due to a raging conflict and a population unconvinced that the disease was real, the outbreak was prevented from becoming worse thanks to two Ebola vaccines, as well as health screening and aggressive contact tracing.

Congo’s health minister Eteni Longondo said that the country’s experience with the disease is helping it fight the pandemic since many of the protective measures are the same.

Despite the victory lap, the Central African nation has seen a flare-up of Ebola in the northwestern part of the country and is still trying to contain a measles outbreak that began in early 2019 that has killed more than 6,000 people.


Remembering the Fallen

North and South Korea separately commemorated the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War on Thursday, a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un halted a planned military escalation against Seoul, the Associated Press reported.

During the ceremony, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he hoped both nations would try to achieve peace and reunification in the near future.

The two Koreas remain technically in a state of war since the armistice that ended the conflict almost seven decades ago has yet to be replaced by a peace treaty.

Pyongyang’s decision to suspend deploying troops to the demilitarized border zone has eased weeks of tension in the Korean peninsula.

Earlier this month, North Korea severed communications with its southern neighbor and blew up an inter-Korean liaison office.

North Korea has been ramping up pressure against its neighbor for failing to stop anti-Pyongyang activists from sending propaganda leaflets across the border, the Washington Post reported.

Analysts believe that the pressure tactics are part of a strategy to pressure the US government to restart nuclear negotiations, following two failed summits last year.

They say Pyongyang has used such tactics before to get concessions from Seoul.


Lights Out

Forget complicated passwords or top-of-the-line security systems: Scientists have found that a common lightbulb can be “hacked” to hear confidential conversations held in a room 80 feet away, the Evening Standard reported.

In a recent study, they wrote that a new technique known as Lamphone can pick up small vibrations in a lightbulb exposed to soundwaves.

All a person needs to eavesdrop on a conversation is a laptop and a telescope connected to a remote electro-optical sensor – all which can be easily purchased.

In their experiment, the researchers tested the method by placing the telescope’s eyepiece in front of the sensor, which was connected to a laptop to process the files into audible sound.

The eavesdropper was able to extract two songs and a spoken sentence being played inside a room that was 80 feet away, where a 12-watt bulb was hanging.

“We show that an electro-optical sensor that outputs information at a lower resolution is sufficient to recover sound,” said co-author Ben Nassi.

Nassi’s team said that spies only need to have a clear sight of a hanging bulb. Even so, they haven’t yet determined if the method works with desk lamps or wall-mounted lighting.

While it’s a serious cause for concern for those handling sensitive data, at least simply turning off the light or closing the blinds will do the trick – for now.

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