COVID-19 March 19 International update at 2130: The ‘world is at war’, stock markets rise

  • Mar. 19, 2020 2:15 p.m.
Public health agencies are weighing stronger COVID-19 protection for front-line workers. (Black Press Media)

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 198,000 people and killed more than 7,900. The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or those with existing health problems. More than 81,000 people have recovered so far, mostly in China.

Updated at 2130 Pacific

ASIA: Markets rise on Friday

BEIJING — Asian stock markets were mostly higher Friday after modest Wall Street gains on hopes government and central bank action can shield the world economy from a looming global recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Benchmarks in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Australia and Southeast Asia advanced. Tokyo was closed for a public holiday. Oil gained again after U.S. benchmark crude soared 23% on Thursday for its biggest one-day gain on record.

Investors were encouraged after seeing more steps by the Federal Reserve and other central banks and governments to support credit markets and the economy.

On Wall Street, the benchmark S&P 500 index rose 0.5% in a relatively modest change compared with violent price swings over the past week.

Hopes are rising for progress in finding virus treatments and that “a boatload of stimulus by both central banks and governments will put the global economy in position for a U-shaped recovery,” said Edward Moya of Oanda in a report.

On Thursday, the European Central Bank launched a program to inject money into credit markets by purchasing up to 750 billion euros ($820 billion) in bonds. The Bank of England cut its key interest rate to a record low of 0.1%. Australia’s central bank also cut its benchmark lending rate to 0.25%. Central banks in Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines also cut their benchmark rates.

They are trying to reduce the impact of a global recession that forecasters say looks increasingly likely as the United States and other governments tighten travel controls, close businesses and tell consumers and travellers to stay home.

Investors also appeared to be encouraged by reports that China is set to ramp up stimulus spending after the province where the virus emerged in December showed no new infections on Wednesday.

China: Reprimanded doctor, now dead, exonerated for for warning of virus

BEIJING — China has taken the highly unusual move of exonerating a doctor who was reprimanded for warning about the coronavirus outbreak and later died of the disease.

The official China News Service late Tuesday said police in the epicenter city of Wuhan had revoked its admonishment of Dr. Li Wenliang that had included a threat of arrest and issued a “solemn apology” to his family.

It said two police officers had been issued “disciplinary punishments” for the original handling of the matter, without giving further details.

In death, Li became the face of simmering anger at the ruling Communist Party’s controls over information and complaints that officials lie about or hide disease outbreaks, industrial accidents, natural disasters and financial frauds, while punishing whistleblowers and independent journalists.

The 33-year-old ophthalmologist died in early February at Wuhan Central Hospital, where he worked and likely contracted the virus while treating patients in the early days of the outbreak.

After seeing thousands of new cases daily at the peak of the city’s outbreak a month ago, Wuhan on Friday had its second consecutive day with no new confirmed or suspected cases.

The health ministry said all of the 39 new cases recorded nationwide Friday were brought from overseas, showing that rigid travel restrictions and social distancing requirements appear to have had their desired effect.

China has loosened some travel restrictions in Hubei, the province surrounding Wuhan, although its provincial border remains closed and Wuhan itself remains under lockdown. Officials say they will only lift the quarantine after Wuhan goes 14 consecutive days with no new cases.

U.S.: Two senators sold more than $2 million in stocks before market meltdown

WASHINGTON — Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., sold as much as $1.7 million in stocks just before the market dropped in February amid fears about the coronavirus epidemic.

Senate records show that Burr and his wife sold between roughly $600,000 and $1.7 million in more than 30 separate transactions in late January and mid-February, just before the market began to fall and as government health officials began to issue stark warnings about the effects of the virus. Several of the stocks were in companies that own hotels.

The stock sales were first reported by ProPublica and The Center for Responsive Politics. Most of them came on Feb. 13, just before Burr made a speech in North Carolina in which he predicted severe consequences from the virus, including closed schools and cutbacks in company travel, according to audio obtained by National Public Radio and released Thursday.

Burr told the small North Carolina audience that the virus was “much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history” and “probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

Burr’s remarks were much more dire than remarks he had made publicly, and came as President Donald Trump was still downplaying the severity of the virus.

There is no indication that Burr had any inside information as he sold the stocks and issued the private warnings. The intelligence panel did not have any briefings on the pandemic the week when most of the stocks were sold, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person declined to be identified to discuss confidential committee activity.

Burr said on Twitter Thursday that Americans were already being warned about the effects of the virus when he made the speech to the North Carolina State Society.

“The message I shared with my constituents is the one public health officials urged all of us to heed as coronavirus spread increased,” Burr wrote. “Be prepared.”

Burr sent out the tweets before reports of his stock sales. A spokesperson for the senator said in a statement that Burr “has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy” and supports congressional efforts to help the economy. The spokesperson declined to be identified in order to share the senator’s thinking.

The North Carolina senator was not the only lawmaker to sell of stocks just before the steep decline due to the global pandemic. Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a new senator who is up for re-election this year, sold off hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock in late January, as senators began to get briefings on the virus, also according to Senate records.

In the weeks that followed, Loeffler urged her constituents to have faith in the Trump administration’s efforts to prepare the nation.

“@realDonaldTrump & his administration are doing a great job working to keep Americans healthy & safe,” Loeffler tweeted Feb. 27.

United Nations: The world is at war with a virus

UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says the world “is at war with a virus” and warned that “a global recession — perhaps of record dimensions — is a near certainty.”

The U.N. chief said “people are suffering, sick and scared” and stressed that current responses by individual countries will not address “the global scale and complexity of the crisis.”

“This is a moment that demands co-ordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies,” Guterres told reporters from U.N. headquarters. “We must recognize that the poorest countries and most vulnerable — especially women — will be the hardest hit.”

He welcomed next week’s emergency summit of leaders of the Group of 20 major economic powers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic saying he will participate with the message that this is an unprecedented situation which requires creativity — “and the magnitude of the response must match its scale.”

U.S.: Coronavirus kills four in a single family; several remain ill

FREEHOLD, N.J. — A fourth member of a New Jersey family died Thursday from COVID-19.

Vincent Fusco died Thursday morning at a hospital in Freehold, NJ.com reported. His death was confirmed by Roseann Paradiso Fodera, an attorney and relative. Fusco’s mother, Grace Fusco, died Wednesday night, hours after another son, Carmine Fusco, died in Pennsylvania.

A sister, Rita Fusco-Jackson, died last Friday. In her final hours, Grace Fusco wasn’t aware her two children had died, Paradiso Fodera, told the newspaper.

Carmine Fusco died Wednesday at a hospital in northeastern Pennsylvania, where he lived. A sister confirmed his death, which was the first in Pennsylvania caused by the virus, to the Morning Call of Allentown.

Carmine Fusco and Rita Fusco-Jackson, who were both in their 50s, were “the most wonderful brother and sister that anybody can have,” their sister, Andriana Fusco, told the newspaper. ““They were good people. I don’t know why this is happening. They didn’t deserve this, they’re too young.”

Carmine Fusco trained horses that competed at harness racing tracks in the area. Andriana Fusco told The Morning Call that she disputed reports that the virus may have been spread through a family gathering attended by a person who’d had contact with 69-year-old John Brennan, a former harness racing trainer who worked for years at New York’s Yonkers Raceway.

Brennan lived in northern New Jersey and was the first person in the state to die because of the virus, on March 10.

Andriana Fusco told the newspaper her brother Carmine hadn’t been in New Jersey in the past two weeks and that she hadn’t seen him since last month. She also said other members of her family had been sickened by the virus.

United Kingdom: Monarch says British should work as one

LONDON — Queen Elizabeth II has urged British people to “work as one” to defeat the coronavirus pandemic.

In a rare first-person message, the queen acknowledged that many individuals and families “are entering a period of great concern and uncertainty.“

“At times such as these, I am reminded that our nation’s history has been forged by people and communities coming together to work as one, concentrating our combined efforts with a focus on the common goal,” she said.

The queen thanked medics, scientists and emergency workers, and said “we all have a vitally important part to play” in overcoming the pandemic.

The 93-year-old monarch and her husband Prince Philip, 98, moved to their Windsor Castle residence on Thursday. They usually spend Easter there but have gone a week early, with a slimmed-down staff, because of the outbreak.

Brazil: It’s no longer ‘hysteria’. Borders are closed

SAO PAULO — Brazil is closing its borders with most of its South American neighbours, a decision most of them had already made, and treating any patients with “severe flu” as a coronavirus case.

Latin America’s largest nation is still negotiating with Uruguay. Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta also said families of people who tested positive will receive medical permission to stay home for two weeks.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who initially dismissed the outbreak as “hysteria,” is trying to regain control of the fight against the virus that Mandetta and state governors have led thus far. Brazil has 621 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus and reported six deaths.

Portugal: Most retail outlets must close

LISBON, Portugal — Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa announced that people infected with the coronavirus are to be confined to their residences and most retail outlets must close as part of a 15-day state of emergency in the European country.

Those over 70 years old or with chronic ailments should only leave home for short walks for health reasons. Costa said the rest of the population should only leave home to commute to work, shop for necessities, to help a family member, to accompany children, or to walk a pet.

Costa added that all retail shops except supermarkets, bakeries, pharmacies, gas stations, and newsstands are ordered to close.

Africa: Foreigners are being harrassed

JOHANNESBURG — Another U.S. embassy in Africa is reporting anti-foreigner sentiment over the coronavirus.

The embassy in Cameroon says Americans and other foreigners in the major cities of Yaounde and Douala reported “verbal and online harassment, stone throwing and banging on vehicles occupied by expatriates.”

Many of Africa’s more than 600 confirmed cases of the coronavirus are people who recently arrived from the United States, Britain, Italy and other high-risk countries.

The U.S. embassy in Ethiopia issued a similar security alert, prompting the prime minister’s office to announce that COVID-19 “is not related to any country or nationality.

Serbia: Borders closed except for cargo traffic

BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia is closing its borders for all but cargo traffic in an effort to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the measure takes effect on Friday.

The Balkan country on Thursday closed its main airport in Belgrade for all passenger flights and the national carrier Air Serbia stopped operations.

Officials say the closure of the borders was made partly because some 70,000 Serbs and their families working in West European countries have returned to Serbia in the last few days despite appeals by authorities not to do so.

Serbia, with 103 coronavirus cases confirmed so far, has introduced some of the toughest restrictive measures in Europe. They include an overnight curfew for all citizens and a ban on leaving their homes for all those older than 65.

Czech: Secret funeral for Olympian

PRAGUE — The funeral of Dana Zatopkova, an Olympic javelin champion and the wife of running great Emil Zatopek, will be held at a secret location on Friday due the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The Czech Olympic Committee said the organizers wanted to prevent a gathering of many people, which is now banned, who would like to say goodbye to the popular athlete who died Friday at age 97.

“Under the normal circumstances, we would, of course, like everyone who want to pay respect to her to come,” said Jiri Kejval, the head of the Czech Olympic Committee.

Kejval said a mass will be served for Zatopkova once the crisis with the virus is over and her remains will be buried alongside her late husband in the town of Roznov pod Radhostem in September.

Cruise ships to become hospitals

MIAMI — Carnival Corp. says it will make cruise ships from four of its brands available to serve as temporary hospitals in locations that need them to combat the new coronavirus.

The announcement came after President Donald Trump said at a White House news conference he had spoken with Carnival Chairman Micky Arison about the possibility.

The world’s largest cruise line says its ships could serve mainly to treat non-coronavirus patients, freeing up beds in land-based hospitals for those patients. The company says ships can provide up to 1,000 hospital rooms and are able to be quickly provisioned with the necessary medical equipment, including intensive care units.

Carnival crew would provide such things as food and beverage, and cleaning services, with local medical personnel to handle the treatment of patients, the statement said.

Trump said at a White House briefing that he would present the offer to New York and California during a teleconference later Thursday will all 50 governors.

Two Navy hospital ships also will become part of the effort.

Caribbean: Guadeloupe hit with 45 cases

BASSE TERRE, Guadeloupe — The French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe has declared its own COVID-19 epidemic with 45 confirmed cases.

The local government said Thursday that eight patients remain hospitalized as it urged people to remain indoors on the island of some 390,000 people. The curfew applies to places including beaches and waters surrounding the island.

Guadeloupe banned all incoming commercial passenger flights on Wednesday and starting March 23 will restrict outgoing flights to special circumstances including health-related reasons.

Italy: Country now has the world’s highest COVID-19 death toll

ROME — Italy has become the country with the most coronavirus-related deaths, surpassing China by registering 3,405 dead.

Italy reached the gruesome milestone on the same day the epicenter of the pandemic, Wuhan, China, recorded no new infections. Overall, China on Thursday counted 3,249 dead, 156 fewer than Italy, according to the Johns Hopkins University virus map.

Both Italy’s death toll and its new infections shot up again, adding 427 more dead and 5,322 more infections. Overall, Italy has recorded 41,035 infections, a little more than half of China’s positive cases.

Italy’s health care system has been overwhelmed by the virus, and on Thursday a visiting Chinese Red Cross team criticized the failure of Italians to fully quarantine and take the national lockdown seriously.

Netherlands: Medical care minister resigns after slumping to the floor

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The Dutch medical care minister has resigned, a day after slumping to the floor during a parliamentary debate about the government’s handling of the coronavirus.

The Dutch royal house announced King Willem-Alexander had accepted Bruno Bruins’ resignation. It did not give a reason for the minister leaving office.

Bruins collapsed in parliament Wednesday night and was quickly helped to his feet by a fellow Cabinet minister. He later tweeted that he felt faint due to exhaustion and was heading home to rest so he could return to work Thursday.

Bruins has been one of the busiest ministers in government as Dutch authorities attempt to rein in the spread of the coronavirus.

Germany: Outbreak stops commemoration of the Second World War

BERLIN — German authorities have called off an official ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation from Nazi rule because of the coronavirus epidemic.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was due to speak at the event in Berlin on May 8. But the interior ministry said Steinmeier has decided the event shouldn’t go ahead in the current circumstances.

The ministry said that it hasn’t yet been decided how the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender will now be marked.

Russia is still planning a massive May 9 military parade on Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the World War II victory, the nation’s most important holiday. President Vladimir Putin has invited many global leaders.

U.S.: Severe blood shortage

Israel: Medical staffed lauded

Israelis have stepped out onto their balconies and applauded health care personnel working to stop the coronavirus pandemic.

Around the country, despite rainy weather, Israelis came out to support medical staff, taking a cue from others in Europe who are taking at least a minute each night to come together in gratitude. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, joined in on the initiative.

Israel has identified more than 500 cases of the coronavirus. As elsewhere, Israeli medical staff risk infection as they try to keep the pandemic at bay.

Spain: Military medics may attend nursing homes

Spain’s government is announcing new measures to deal with a wave of more than 80 deaths and hundreds of infections with the new coronavirus reported this week in elderly nursing homes across the country.

Pablo Iglesias, deputy prime minister in charge of social affairs, said Thursday that 300 million euros (323 million dollars) will be provided for regional governments to spend on additional social workers and caretakers in homes for the elderly.

Iglesias acknowledged that workers at these facilities are “overwhelmed,” and they are lacking needed protective suits and other medical material.

Authorities in Madrid, where 40% of the country’s more than 17,000 infections have been identified, are discussing whether to bring military medics and other army resources into the region’s nursing homes.

The Ministry of Health is also drafting a new series of guidelines for nursing homes to deal with infected patients. Many hospitals are reporting to be overwhelmed to deal with the influx of COVID-19 cases.

Russia: COVID-19 cases grow, no deaths

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has discussed the coronavirus pandemic in a telephone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

A Kremlin statement says Putin gave “a high assessment of the results achieved by the People’s Republic of China and the entire Chinese people in countering the spread of the disease.” The call came as the number of COVID-19 cases in Russia continues to grow, reaching 199 on Thursday. No deaths from pneumonia attributed to the disease have been reported in Russia.

Monaco: Royal tests positive for coronavirus

MONTE CARLO, Monaco — The palace of Monaco says Prince Albert II has tested positive for the coronavirus, but says there’s little concern for his health.

In a statement, the palace says the 62-year-old is being treated by doctors from the Princess Grace Hospital, named after his U.S. actress mother.

Albert plans to continue working from his home office in the palace.

– Associated Press

US: All Americans warned against all overseas travel

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has upgraded its already dire warning to Americans against all international travel as the coronavirus outbreak spreads.

The State Department on Thursday issued a new alert urging Americans not to travel abroad under any circumstances and to return home if they are already abroad unless they plan to remain overseas.

“The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19,” it said in the new advice. “In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period. U.S. citizens who live abroad should avoid all international travel.”

Until the upgrade, the department’s advice to U.S. citizens was to “reconsider” all international travel under what is known as a “level three” alert. The global “level four” warning was unprecedented as such alerts are generally reserved for specific countries embroiled in conflict, natural disasters or where Americans face specific risks.

However, the upgrade will likely have little practical effect because it is not mandatory and there are now limited transportation options for international travel. The only way to ban Americans from going abroad would be to invalidate the use of U.S. passports for such travel, a bar that is currently in place only for North Korea.

In addition, the main impact of State Department travel alerts is to cause insurance companies to increase premiums or cancel travel policies for group and individual tours, many of which had been scrapped even before the alert was raised to level three earlier this week.

The department has already advised Americans that many U.S. embassies and consulates abroad are operating with reduced staff and hours due to the COVID-19 outbreak and that services for Americans in need of assistance are limited.

By Matthew Lee, The Associated Press

North Korea: Under-prepared, supreme leader says it’s ‘heartbreaking’

SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un admitted his country lacked modern medical facilities in a rare assessment of its system and said improving its health care was “crucial” as he marked the construction of a new hospital, state media said Wednesday.

Kim’s remarks and the groundbreaking for the new hospital in Pyongyang come amid worries that a coronavirus epidemic in the impoverished country could be devastating due its chronic lack of medical supplies and outdated medical infrastructure.

North Korea has engaged in an intense campaign to guard against COVID-19, though it has steadfastly claimed no one has been sickened, a claim many foreign experts doubt.

During a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a “modern” general hospital in Pyongyang on Tuesday, Kim said the state’s efforts should be directed “to prop up the field of public health,” according to the Korean Central News Agency. It cited Kim as saying the construction must be completed before October’s 75th founding anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.

Kim said the ruling party decided on building the hospital during a key party meeting in late December and was working to have it finished “in the shortest time.” In a rare admission on a North Korean system, Kim also said, “Frankly speaking, our party … criticized in a heart-aching manner the fact that there is not a modern medical and health care facility even in our capital city,” according to KCNA.

Kim appears to be using the hospital construction to burnish his image as a leader caring about public livelihoods at a time when his country is grappling with international sanctions amid stalled nuclear diplomacy with the United States, said Ahn Kyung-su, head of the Seoul-based private Research Center of DPRK Health and Welfare.

— Hyung-Jin Kim, The Associated Press

China: The largest expulsion of journalists in memory

BEIJING — At least 13 American journalists stand to be expelled from China in retaliation for a new visa limit imposed by the Trump administration on Chinese state-owned media operating in the U.S.

The Chinese government announced Wednesday that Americans working at three major U.S. newspapers would have to surrender their press cards within 10 days. They will all but certainly have to leave the country, as their visas are tied to their media credentials.

The number of affected journalists at the papers — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post — is at least 13 and could be higher depending on how broadly the group is defined, said the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, or FCCC.

It would be by far the largest expulsion of foreign journalists from China in recent memory.

“There are no winners in the use of journalists as diplomatic pawns by the world’s two preeminent economic powers,” the FCCC said in a statement.

— Ken Moritsugu, The Associated Press

South Korea: Infections spike at nursing hospitals

The mayor of the South Korean city worst-hit by the coronavirus says 87 new cases have been discovered from local nursing hospitals, raising concerns about a possible spike in infections after they waned over the past week.

Daegu Mayor Kwon Young-jin said Wednesday that 74 of the cases came from a single hospital and that the 57 patients who were infected would be transferred to other facilities for treatment.

The infections at nursing homes weren’t fully reflected in national figures announced by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or KCDC, which said the cases in Daegu rose by 46 in the 24 hours ending midnight Tuesday.

South Korean officials have struggled to stem infections at hospitals, nursing homes, disability institutions and other live-in facilities, which critics say have been poorly regulated for years.

The KCDC says 116 cases and 10 deaths have been linked to a hospital in Cheongdo, near Daegu, where infections surged among patients hospitalized at a psychiatric ward.

South Korea has confirmed at least 8.413 coronavirus cases, including 84 deaths.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s vice health minister who gave daily televised briefings on the country’s anti-virus efforts is quarantining himself after meeting a hospital official who has COVID-19.

Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho on Wednesday said the vice minister, Kim Gang-lip, was among eight ministry officials who met with a group of hospital chiefs at a restaurant in Seoul last Friday to discuss quarantine and treatment for the coronavirus.

G-20: Leaders to hold emergency meeting

The leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies are trying to organize a virtual meeting next week to discuss a co-ordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Saudi Arabia, which currently leads the G-20 presidency, said it is communicating with countries to convene the virtual meeting of leaders.

The kingdom said in a statement Wednesday the Group of 20 countries will act in any way deemed necessary to alleviate the impact of the pandemic and will put forward a co-ordinated set of policies to protect people and safeguard the global economy.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has come under criticism by some officials around the world, including members of the U.S. Congress, over its moves to ramp up oil production to more than 11 million barrels a day after an agreement with major oil producer Russia fell apart. The Saudi decision to flood the market sent oil prices plummeting below $30 a barrel at a time when markets around the world are also plunging.

Taiwan: Foreigners banned starting March 19

Taiwan is banning foreigners from entering the island.

Chen Shih-zhong, Taiwan’s health minister and commander of the Central Epidemic Epidemic Command Center, announced the ban that starts Thursday. Taiwanese people returning will have to quarantine at home for 14 days.

Taiwan has 77 cases of infection with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Hawaii: Stay away for at least 30 days

Hawaii’s governor is encouraging travellers to postpone their island vacations for at least the next 30 days as the state tries to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The governor is directing bars and clubs to close and for restaurants to focus on takeout, delivery and drive-through service. He called for gatherings to be limited to a maximum of 10 people.

Officials have closed schools and facilities and postponed events to prevent the disease from spreading widely in the community and overwhelming the healthcare system. Hawaii has recorded 14 cases of the new coronavirus.

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