Research & Analysis

The World This Week: Corona fatalities cross 60000, the US scramble for medical supplies, the second wave in Asia, the fallout on Asian labour and remittances, and restrictions on media

The steep increase since 13 March: Covid-19 fatalities cross 60,000;  the cases today are more than one million

What happened?
A total of 60,397 people have been registered dead due to the coronavirus outbreak as on 4 April 2020. More than a million have been diagnosed as confirmed cases from 205 countries, though over 200,000 have recovered.  The pace of its increase during the past week has made it difficult to assess and interpret the fatality rates. A steep increase in the number of deaths was observed after 13 March 2020. Especially the last week. Between the last Sunday (27,000 plus fatalities), and this Sunday (around 60,000), the fatalities number is more than double.

The intensity of the outbreak has put the States’ fundamental policies to question. This is because many of the developed countries, too are seen struggling to keep up with their medical needs.

The daily-death rate due to the virus is at an all-time high. 4,535 deaths were recorded on 31 March, 5974 deaths on 2 April and subsequently 5990 deaths on 3 April 2020. The increase shows that the world is still far from even the peak of the virus outbreak.

What is the background?
COVID-19 that originated in Wuhan today is spread in 205 countries, with regions like the Faeroe Islands reporting 181 cases. The virus outbreak with an initial estimate of two per cent death rate is now approximately six per cent, an increase observed in one month. Many of the European countries are seeing a massive spike in the number of cases, even while China’s immediate neighbours have managed to control the spread to a few thousand.

Only five countries from Asia are seen in the top 20 countries with the highest number of cases and have more than 5000 confirmed cases. However, 11 European countries can be put under the same list with the parameters. The United States surged ahead of the rest with the number of cases at 277,607 and fatalities over 7,400 (as on 4 April 2020). Spain, Italy, Germany, and France have all crossed China in the number of diagnosed cases. In the case of death rates, except Germany, the rest are higher than China.

What does it mean?
One of the main reasons for the spread of the virus is the response of the states to the outbreak. When the world witnessed China facing the issue, it was not expected to expand at this pace. However, the possibility existed, and nothing much was done to address it. In three months of the outbreak, many of the medical demands that the world is observing now could have been met.

This outbreak would remain as a reminder of the impact of globalization. An imbalance in the supply chains of essential medical equipment is a strong example of distorted priorities that have come about in the past years. Countries have yet to come up with a common plan to tackle the virus. Many governments are trying to solve the outbreak only in their individual capacities. Germany and South Korea, for example, have come up with their own unique plans to test large numbers of patients quickly.

 

Big powers scramble for medical supplies; the US is accused of piracy

What happened? 
The US’s global scramble and alleged attempts to hijack more protective masks and other vital medical supplies to deal with the escalating number of Covid-19 victims has sparked tensions among its allies including Canada and Germany. These countries fear facing shortages while battling Covid-19 outbreaks in their own country.

Berlin accused the US of confiscating 200,000 Germany-bound masks en route from China and termed the act as “modern piracy”. Brazil and France have also complained about the United States outbidding them in the global marketplace for critical medical supplies. French health officials claim that US officials barged into a Chinese airport and spirited away a planeload of masks that were ordered by France.

What is the background?
As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, demand for crucial medical supplies, such as masks and respirators, has surged worldwide. Recently Spain launched three weekly flights to ferry home medical supplies directly from China. The United States, which at present is suffering from double the number of infections compared to any other nation is scrambling for medical supplies including thermometers, gowns, masks and gloves mainly from Asia and Central America.

The White House invoked the Defense Production Act which is a Korean-War-era law to deal with a critical shortage of N95 masks at US hospitals and ordered The US company, Minnesota mask manufacturer 3M to prioritize US orders over foreign demand. 3M was also directed to stop exporting masks to Canada and Latin America in addition to importing more from its factories in China. At a daily Coronavirus Task Force briefing, Trump said that US authorities had taken custody of 200,000 N95 respirators, 130,000 surgical masks along with 600,000 gloves.

The US is not the only accused. Earlier in February, Italy issued an ordinance blocking the export of medical supplies. Last month, Italian customs police seized some 800,000 masks and disposable gloves that were about to be sent to Switzerland. Recently, Tunisia accused Italy of blocking a shipment of alcohol for making the hand-cleansing gel.

What does it mean?
Such acts of national self-interest while waging the battle against Covid-19 test the often-proclaimed solidarity among nations. The World Health Organization, which presently advises that masks do not provide sufficient protection from infection, is even considering to change its guidelines on whether people should wear face masks in public. Mr Trump announced that the Centers for Disease Control recommend Americans to use non-medical, cloth face coverings to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The Defense Production Act allows the President to force companies to make products for national defence. 3M warned that such acts would have “significant humanitarian implications” as 3M is a critical supplier of respirators in Canada and Latin America. It could also prompt other countries to act in a similar manner. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that “it would be a mistake to create blockages or reduce trade”. Germany has urged the Trump administration to adhere to international trading rules, deal sensitively with its transatlantic partners and abstain from “wild-west methods.”

Several European officials echoed similar sentiments against the ‘buying and diversion practices’ of the United States. Regional leaders in France have also expressed their struggle in procuring medical supplies while American buyers outbid them. These turns come at a time when “All of the European Union is living in a state of hysteria”. However, on the brighter side, some countries have tried to make amends for such acts terming them as missteps. Last month, Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek, apologized to Italy and gave away thousands of masks and respirators to compensate for their “mistakenly seized” supplies.

 

China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea…: The Second Wave in Asia

What happened?
As the world struggles to cope with the outbreak of COVID-19, Asia stares at the second wave of the pandemic. China (including Hong Kong), Japan, Singapore, and South Korea are at the risk of importing new cases, with some people returning back to these countries. Additionally, the recovered patients are being affected the second time, and there are concerns about the rise in the number of asymptomatic cases.

China reported at least 35 such new cases, while Singapore saw 33 new cases. Other countries are yet to clearly point out the number of ‘imported’ cases.

What is the background?
The number of cases now stands at 1,139,120 with 236,214 people recovered and 61,144 deaths. The United States reports 277,613 cases, the highest in the world. Italy is the worst affected in terms of mortality, standing at 14,681.

China, the country of origin, successfully flattened the curve and did not report any new locally-transmitted case during the previous week. South Korea, which saw a quick surge in cases in the initial stages, could control the cases due to the successful implementation of tracing-testing-isolation strategy. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore are also the success stories in Asia. However, they are now at the risk of the second wave.

What does it mean?
First, the second wave of COVID-19 sees an imposition of a new set of measures. China has strict restrictions for the entry of citizens as well as people having valid visas and resident permits for an indefinite period. International flights are also restricted to one per week and the travellers should undergo compulsory quarantine for two weeks. Taiwan has closed its borders and ordered the citizens returning, to undergo a two-week quarantine. Hong Kong also follows a similar policy. New entrants into the province will be tracked by a mandatory ‘electronic bracelet’.

South Korea and Japan are weighing the options of extending border controls and imposing restrictions on the movement of people, particularly their citizens abroad and other foreigners. The Prime Minister of Singapore announced one-month lockdown to fight the pandemic. This comes after the sudden surge in cases and reports of local transmission emerging again.
Second, if the second wave of the virus becomes a more serious concern in the coming days, the economies are at stake. These countries/provinces are manufacturing and commercial hubs, dependent on industries and the movement of people. The economy has already suffered adversely since the outbreak of COVID-19 in late December and a second bout would be catastrophic.

The key is to continue the measures that flattened the curve in March and strictly implement the new measures.

 

COVID-19: The Migrant Labour, Remittances and Economy in Asia

What happened?
Travel restrictions and closed borders in order to prevent the spread of the virus have threatened the livelihood of the migrant labourers across the world. According to the International Labour Organization, several countries in South Asia, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and India currently have more than 30 million people in jobs overseas. Similarly, the rest of Asian countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, China, and Malaysia have been providing for skilled and unskilled labour to the rest of the world especially to the US, Europe, and the Gulf countries.

The lockdown will impact not only these labourers but also their families who are solely dependent on their remittances. These remittances also play a crucial role in their country’s GDP; hence, the virus will have a larger impact on the economy than anticipated as of now.

What is the background?
For Nepal, remittance plays a pivotal part; foreign employment is a major source of its GDP.  In 2019, remittances contributed 26 per cent to the country’s GDP. Even in the current fiscal year, within the first four months, the country has received more than 50 per cent of its total remittance from Nepalese working in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Similarly, in Bangladesh, more than 7.5 million external migrant workers contribute to their economy; around US$ 1748.16 million in 2019 itself. The year was celebrated as it has recorded to be highest since 2012. As mentioned in the government data, Saudi Arabia is the most popular destination for Bangladeshi labourers.

According to the World Bank report, as of 2018, India has been the world’s top recipient of remittances. In the same year, the diaspora has contributed approximately US$ 79 billion to the economy. Over the last three years, the country has witnessed a growth rate of 14 per cent in inward remittance.

Parallel, to both Bangladesh and India, another Asian country that has witnessed a surge in the amount of remittance in the 2018 and 2019 fiscal year, is the Philippines. In 2019, the remittance contributed approximately US$ 33.5 billion to the economy.

Along with these countries, several other Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and others are also heavily dependent on the remittances.

What does it mean?
First, there will be a significant impact on these countries’ economies. Previously, the impact of other epidemics like SARS, the worldwide financial crisis, and other calamities did not render the economy in such a terrible state. The reason is that the crisis was restricted to one of the other regions but never before the impact was global. Hence, the recovery from this dent will be difficult and time taking.

Second, some of these economies are healing economies, such as Nepal from the 2015 earthquake, Sri Lanka, from last year’s terrorist attack, Thailand and Malaysia from the political crisis. The contribution from the remittances could have assisted in the process of recovery; unfortunately, the impact of the virus will lead to deterioration.

Third, similar to remittance, these economies are also heavily dependent on tourism especially, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia. Thus, most of these countries once they win over the fight against the virus, the crippling the economy will be their next challenge.

Lastly, the virus will have an impact on the worldwide economy, including those of the labour importing countries, this will lead to unemployment. Currently, several unskilled and semi-skilled labourers have already lost their jobs due to the lockdown. Majority of them are not part of any contract; hence they are most vulnerable. As a result, once the lockdown is withdrawn these countries will witness the return of these laourers, who will add to the list of unemployed within the country. The rise in unemployment will have a larger impact on society.

 

From China to Hungary, the State is using the pandemic to censor media

What happened? 
On 31 March, the government in Hungary passed a decree taking cognizance of the health emergency caused by the outbreak of coronavirus. The decree grants sweeping emergency powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to help battle the coronavirus and this includes the power to punish those who spread false information or panic about the pandemic with up to five years in prison. In the face of the pandemic, many States battling the outbreak have used special laws to control the spread of fear and panic by controlling the flow of information on the affected and death cases in their respective countries. In an effort to control the information, the countries have clamped down the existing media institutions, criticizing the mishandling of the outbreak.

On 27 March, Egypt expelled a correspondent of  British daily, ‘The Guardian’ over a report citing a study that challenged the official count of coronavirus cases in the Arab country. The paper’s correspondent, Ruth Michaelson, was asked to leave the country after her press credential was revoked following the publication of the information.

What is the background?
In Egypt, Ruth Michaelson reported unpublished research by Canadian infectious disease specialists estimating an outbreak size of over 19,000 cases in early March as against the official data by the Egyptian government of only three confirmed cases. Egypt has a strong intolerance for critical reporting. The ‘Reporters Without Borders’ (The Press Freedom watchdog) has ranked Egypt 163 out of 180 countries globally after the country expelled a British Journalist in 2018 over his reporting of the migrant crisis. Similar to Egypt, Iran has barred a reporter, Mohammad Mosaed, for criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic. And so, has China, when a freelance journalist Chen Quishi, who was covering the outbreak in Wuhan disappeared after his first reportage since 6 February. According to a report by the Amnesty International, a Venezuelan journalist has been arrested on 21 March for his critical coverage of the government’s inability to contain the outbreak. In Malaysia, journalist Wan Noor Hayati has been charged with sedition laws over her political commentary and Facebook posts on an incoming Chinese cruise ship to Malaysia post the outbreak in the country.

In East Europe, a Serbian journalist was detained by the police on 1 April on charges of causing public unrest and damaging a hospital’s reputation after she reported a shortage of protective medical equipment at a medical centre. In a rare instance, the journalist was released following public pressure. A State apology reversing the emergency decree was announced in the country to centralize the information during the coronavirus emergency. Reverting to Hungary, a similar emergency decree will now deny journalists access to information, and on occasions even threaten them. The Guardian has reported an increase in threatening comments on social media and in emails to the journalists in Budapest warning the staff that they would end up in jail in case of adverse reporting.

Each of these countries who have attempted to centralize information by censoring the media has also witnessed an exponential growth in the coronavirus cases and is under an authoritarian regime trying to upend the crisis. As of 1 April, Egypt has 456 cases of the new coronavirus with 21 fatalities. Iran has 55,743 cases, China 81,639, Malaysia 3,483 and Hungary 678 cases respectively.

What does it mean? 
First, strong leaders will never let a good crisis go waste if it means exercising a certain amount of control on transparency and accountability to stay in power for long. This is evident in states with authoritarian leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Sadat and now a strong man politician Sisi in Egypt and the Supreme Leader in Iran. Similarly, Malaysia has had strong leaders like Mahathir, witness an unstable democracy with partial and partisan control over the media. In recent times, while on the one hand, the single power regimes are facing massive protests to remain in power, the pandemic has given an opportunity to these leaders to tighten the grip on governance and curb resistance altogether.

Second, it has been a diabolical time in the information age when on the one hand the states have frequently used media and information to contact track the people with the disease and spread awareness. On the other hand, it has been reluctant to outweigh its progress by any form of transparent reporting on the number of fatalities within the countries.

Third, the crackdown on the media also reveals the deep and integrated presence of the surveillance systems used by the countries to swiftly act against any and every information put out in the public domain. Initially aimed at using the surveillance system to track the Covid- 19 patients violating the quarantine or the lockdown will now be used by the same State to trace any perceived violence of information by media institutions.

 

Also in the news…

Antarctica: First ‘heatwave’ recorded in the coldest place on Earth
Record high temperatures were observed at the Casey research station in East Antarctica during the 2019-2020 summer and on the Antarctic Peninsula. Australian Antarctic Programme researchers, a research team at Casey recorded the highest-ever maximum and minimum temperatures from 23 January to 26. On 24 January, the highest maximum temperature ever of 9.2 degrees Celsius was recorded at Casey, which is 6.9 degrees higher than the mean maximum for the station.

Last month, a new Antarctic record maximum temperature of 18.4 degrees Celsius — was recorded at Argentina’s Esperanza research station on the peninsula. Scientists have raised alarm on the effects of global climate change and are concerned about the damage it could bring to the flora and fauna.

Call for OPEC+ Emergency meeting shoots up Oil Prices
An emergency meeting is scheduled on Monday for the OPEC+ group of producers which includes OPEC and 11 non-OPEC countries, to stabilize the oil prices ending the oil price war. This announcement saw a surge in oil price past $30 per barrel late on Friday reversing the earlier declines in the oil price. On 2 March, US oil prices rose by 25% — their biggest one-day gain on record.

Since early March, the oil prices have hit a record 18-year low crushing the American oil companies and energy stock. Since then the US has been mounting pressure on Saudi Arabia and Russia to end the oil price war. The meeting comes after the US President Donald Trump offered to broker a deal between Saudi Arabia and Russia to declare a truce in an oil price war

EU: ‘SURE’ plan to save jobs amid coronavirus crisis
On 2 March, the European Union announced Support to Mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency (SURE) plan to prevent large scale layoffs. According to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a total of €100 billion would be spent in funding the workers facing shorter hours during the coronavirus pandemic. She also expressed confidence in receiving support from the 27 member States for this scheme.

The EU’s executive branch stated that it is also proposing to borrow from the international markets and make loans to member State governments to allow them to fund short-time working schemes, under which employees work reduced hours with some of their salary paid by the State.

Israel: Benny Gantz party falls apart as the unity government gets ready to form
On 29 March, the former journalist Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem abandoned the Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party. Both the key allies in Benny Gantz’s coalition have accused Benny Gantz of surrendering to Netanyahu ‘without a fight’. Israeli Parliament Knesset has also formally approved the break-way of the two leaders.

This comes in the wake of the ex-army chief Benny Gantz’s decision to join the rival Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a unity government. Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc nor Gantz’s centrist bloc got a majority in three times election that happened in the same year. Realizing the coronavirus pandemic, Israel cannot afford a fourth election and hence both the parties have agreed to the need for a unity government.

 

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