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Serbia eyes restrictions; virus spreads in US, Brazil, India

July 09, 2020

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The European nation of Serbia mulled how to curb accelerating coronavirus infections following two nights of clashes involving anti-lockdown demonstrators, while the virus showed no sign of slowing Thursday in the countries with the highest caseloads — the United States, India and Brazil.

The three nations on separate continents are accounting for more than 60% of new confirmed cases, according to recent tallies from Johns Hopkins University. India on Thursday reported 25,000 new cases; the United States on Wednesday reported just short of the record 60,000 cases set a day earlier, and Brazil reported nearly 45,000.

Much of Europe appeared to have put the worst of the crisis behind it, at least for now. But Serbia has emerged as a new focus of concern — and of unrest. The country’s crisis team was expected to reimpose a ban gatherings in the capital, Belgrade and to limit the cafe and night club operations following a spike in infections that officials say threatens the Serbian health system.

It wasn’t clear whether officials would reintroduce a weekend curfew, the initial announcement of which triggered violent protests in Belgrade and other cities. Critics accuse President Aleksandar Vucic of letting the crisis spin out of control by lifting an earlier lockdown to allow for an election that tightened his grip on power.

Rock-throwing demonstrators this week fought hours-long running battles with special police forces who used tear gas to disperse them. Vucic said in an Instagram post on Thursday that the government would control the unrest.

Flare-ups of new virus cases are causing concern in several parts of the world, and in some cases leading to the reintroduction of restrictions on public activity. In France and Greece, officials warned that residents were too frequently ignoring safety guidance. The French government’s leading coronavirus adviser, Jean-Francois Delfraissy, lamented that “the French in general have abandoned protective measures.”

“Everyone must understand that we are at the mercy of a return (of the virus) in France,” Delfraissy said. “It suffices to have one super-spreader in a gathering and it will take off again.” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said authorities were “determined to protect the majority from the frivolous few.” He said the government may announce new restrictions, if needed, on Monday.

Pestas said authorities were focused on the rising number of cases in nearby Balkan countries and tourists who traveled to Greece over the land border with Bulgaria. In Australia, which had initial success containing the outbreak, authorities on Thursday reported 179 new cases, most in Melbourne, where authorities are battling a resurgence and have imposed a new six-week lockdown.

Victoria state Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said six new cases were from a Melbourne high school which has become the state’s largest known cluster, with 113 people infected. More than 2,000 students and hundreds of staff are in quarantine.

Tokyo confirmed more than 220 new cases Thursday, exceeding its record daily increase from mid-April and prompting concerns of widening of the infections. Tokyo’s more than 7,000 cases are about one-third of Japan’s total.

“It’s a wake-up call,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters. “We need to use extra caution against the further spread of the infections.” Experts on Tokyo’s virus task force said the majority of recent cases were linked to night clubs but rising infections from households, workplaces and parties raised concerns the virus is spreading in the wider community.

Hong Kong moved to tighten social-distancing measures after it reported 42 new infections on Thursday. Rules for restaurants, bars and fitness centers will be tightened for two weeks starting Saturday.

In India, research by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai shows that the reproduction rate of the virus ticked up in the first week of July to about 1.2 after it had steadily fallen from a peak of 1.8 in March. The rate needs to be below one for new cases to start falling.

The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would be wise to prepare for the worst-case scenario as virus=related deaths passed 12,000 and confirmed cases climbed fast on that continent. A day after confirmed virus cases across Africa surpassed half a million, the total was over 522,000 and climbing. Testing levels are low, so the actual number of cases is unknown.

’We’ve crossed a critical number here,” Africa CDC chief John Nkengasong said of the half-million milestone. “Our pandemic is getting full speed.” In the U.S., the number of confirmed cases has passed 3 million — meaning nearly one in every 100 people has been confirmed as infected — and the death toll in the pandemic is more than 132,000.

U.S. President Donald Trump remains determined to reopen America’s schools despite worries about the virus, and on Wednesday threatened to hold back federal money if school districts don’t bring their students back in the fall.

Despite Trump’s pressure, New York City announced that most of its students would return to classrooms only two or three days a week and would learn online in between. A growing chorus of public health experts is urging U.S. officials to reconsider how they are reopening the broader economy, and to prioritize schools. That effort that will likely require closing some other establishments like bars and gyms to help curb the virus spread.

Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.

Beijing sees drop in virus cases as Brazil passes 1 million

June 20, 2020

BEIJING (AP) — China’s capital recorded a further drop in coronavirus cases amid tightened containment measures while Brazil surpassed more than 1 million confirmed infections, second only to the United States.

Officials reported 22 new cases in Beijing on Saturday, along with five others elsewhere in China. There are no new deaths and 308 people remain hospitalized for treatment. South Korea recorded 67 new cases, the largest 24-hour increase in about three weeks. Most of them come from the densely populated Seoul area, where about half of the country’s 51 million people reside. Many cases have been linked to exposure in nightlife outlets.

The head of the World Health Organization said Friday the pandemic is “accelerating” and that more than 150,000 cases were reported the day before — the highest single-day number so far. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva that nearly half of the newly reported cases were from the Americas, with significant numbers from South Asia and the Middle East.

Brazil’s Health Ministry said the total number of cases had risen to by more than 50,000 from the previous day. President Jair Bolsonaro still downplays the risks of the virus after nearly 50,000 fatalities in three months. He says the impact of social isolation on Brazil’s economy can be more deadly.

The new coronavirus has infected more than 8.5 million people worldwide and killed more than 454,000, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The actual number is thought to be much higher because many cases are asymptomatic or go untested.

South Africa and Ethiopia say they are recommending the limited use of the commonly available drug dexamethasone for all COVID-19 patients on ventilators or supplementary oxygen. South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said “this breakthrough is excellent news for us and we are especially fortunate that it came as we are preparing for our upcoming surge” in cases. South Africa has about 30% of the virus cases on the African continent, or more than 87,000.

French authorities are keeping a close eye on signs of an accelerating spread of the coronavirus in Normandy, a region that’s until now been spared the worst of the outbreak that has hit Paris and the east of France particularly hard.

Britain lowered its coronavirus threat level one notch, becoming the latest country to claim it’s getting a national outbreak under control. Meanwhile, Germany reported the country’s highest daily increase in virus cases in a month after managing to contain its outbreak better than comparable large European nations.

The emergencies chief of the World Health Organization has confirmed that China shared coronavirus sequences from its latest outbreak with the global community and says it appears the virus was imported to Beijing from strains circulating in Europe.

At a press briefing on Friday, Dr. Michael Ryan noted that “strains and viruses have moved around the world” throughout the pandemic. Ryan said that many viruses in New York “were of European origin” but that doesn’t mean Europe necessarily was the original source.

He says analysis of the genetic sequences so far suggests that the virus spread to people in China from other humans instead of jumping from animals directly into humans.

Associated Press journalists from around the world contributed to this report.

UN refugee agency fears for displaced Venezuelans amid COVID

June 18, 2020

GENEVA (AP) — The head of the U.N. refugee agency says he is “very worried” about the impact of the new coronavirus in Latin America, where millions of Venezuelans have fled upheaval at home and could face hardship abroad among lockdowns and other restrictive measures to fight the pandemic.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said 164 countries have either partially or totally closed their borders to fight COVID-19, the disease that can be caused by the virus. Many people who flee abroad rely on the “informal economy” often involving day work — activities at risk as host governments ratchet up lockdowns.

“Of course, it is good that countries are taking these measures of prudence” against the virus, Grandi said. “Unfortunately, COVID that has been able to cause the entire world to grind to a halt has not been able to stop wars, conflicts, violence, discrimination.”

“People are still fleeing their countries to seek refuge, to seek protection. This needs to be considered,” he added, appealing to governments. The impact could be especially stark for 3.7 million Venezuelans abroad, the world’s second-largest nationality of refugees after the 6.6 million Syrians displaced by their country’s war. The Americas have become the world’s epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

“One region about which we’re very worried is, of course, Latin America and South America and in particular where countries host many millions of Venezuelans,” Grandi said in an interview. “They are particularly hit by COVID.”

The comments came as UNHCR issued its annual “Global Trends” report, which found that the number of asylum-seekers, internally displaced people and refugees shot up by nearly 9 million people last year — the biggest rise in its records — to 79.5 million people, accounting for 1% of all humanity, amid conflict, repression and upheaval.

UNHCR chalked up the surge to a new way of counting people displaced from Venezuela and a “worrying” new displacement in the persistent trouble spots of Congo, the Sahel region of Africa, Yemen and Syria, which alone accounted for more than 13 million of those people on the move.

While the total figure of people facing forced displacement rose from 70.8 million at the end of 2018, some 11 million people were “newly displaced” last year, with poorer countries among those most affected.

UNHCR says forced displacement has nearly doubled from 41 million people in 2010, and five countries — Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar — are the source of nearly two-thirds of people displaced abroad.

Grandi also noted about 30% to 40% of the world’s refugee population lived in camps. He said COVID-19 hasn’t affected “in dramatic numbers” camps like those in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh — a country that has taken in nearly a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Myanmar — or in Africa.

Amid the outbreak, UNHCR has stepped up its “cash transfer” programs that put money directly in the pockets of displaced people. Grandi says 65 countries now benefit from such programs, “and we have added 40 countries in just the last few months.”

Overworked, underpaid Brazil nurses risk lives to care for patients

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (SPX)

Jun 10, 2020

Hans Bossan is 40 hours into his 72-hour work week, but despite his marathon nursing shifts and the pandemic claiming an alarming number of his colleagues’ lives in Brazil, he barely looks tired.

Bossan works three jobs to provide for his wife and two-year-old daughter — at two different hospitals and a mobile emergency unit.

Double and triple shifts like his are not unusual in Brazil, where the average salary for nurses, nursing assistants and health care technicians is just 3,000 reals ($600) a month for a 30- to 44-hour work week.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has thrust health care workers into the spotlight around the world, has in Brazil also highlighted the plight of nurses, who often face bad working conditions and are now getting sick and dying from COVID-19 at a startling rate.

“Nursing was always an overworked profession, and this pandemic has just made things worse,” said Bossan, 41.

“We’re highly undervalued. Nurses deal directly with patients, with the virus, we’re on the front lines of the war. But not everyone realizes that,” he told AFP at his home in a poor neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

Nurses have been hit particularly hard as Brazil has become the latest epicenter in the pandemic, with 39,680 deaths, behind only the United States and Britain.

Around 18,000 nurses in Brazil have been infected with COVID-19, and at least 181 have died — among the highest numbers in the world, according to the International Council of Nurses.

Last month, nurses protested in the capital, Brasilia, against the poor working conditions they blame for contributing to their colleagues’ deaths.

Brazil accounts for nearly one-third of the 600 deaths among nurses and other health professionals registered worldwide by the International Council of Nurses, though the organization says many countries are not doing enough to track the real number.

– ‘Anxiety and depression’ –

More than 80 percent of Brazil’s 2.3 million nurses are women.

Often they work double and triple shifts caring for patients and then go home to care for their own families — now with the added worry of infecting them.

“It’s a time of great anxiety and depression” for the profession, said Nadia Mattos, vice president of Brazil’s Federal Nursing Council (Cofen).

When the initial flood of cases hit Brazil’s hospitals, health care workers faced shortages of protective equipment and inadequate training on dealing with the new virus, she said.

Although the situation has improved with time, “we’re still getting lots of complaints about lack of protective gear or low-quality equipment,” she said.

The council has set up virtual psychological counseling for nurses, available 24 hours a day.

The group has also pushed for years for nurses’ minimum salary to be increased to $1,200 a month, double the current average.

– Heroes without capes –

One of Bossan’s jobs is in the intensive care unit at Che Guevara Hospital in Marica, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) outside Rio.

Working behind a face shield with a mask underneath, he monitored the constantly beeping machines helping to keep his patients alive.

One of them, 56-year-old Eliane Lima, thanked her health care team from behind her oxygen mask.

“The doctors and nurses are excellent here. They take care of us with a lot of love. It’s badly needed in a place like this,” she said.

Outside, in the semi-intensive care ward, nurse technician Flavia Menezes summed up her profession thus: “It’s the art of caring for people.”

Source: Terra Daily.

Link: https://www.terradaily.com/reports/Overworked_underpaid_Brazil_nurses_risk_lives_to_care_for_patients_999.html.

Parisians return to cafes; Latin America sees virus surge

June 02, 2020

PARIS (AP) — Parisians returned to the City of Light’s beloved sidewalk cafes as lockdown restrictions eased Tuesday, but health experts expressed deep concerns as several Latin American countries opted to reopen their economies despite a rapid rise in coronavirus cases.

The post-lockdown freedom along Paris’ cobbled streets will be tempered by social distancing rules for the city’s once-densely packed cafe tables. Paris City Hall has authorized outside seating areas only, with indoor seating off-limits until June 22. But the tiny tables will have to be spaced at least 1 meter apart, sharply cutting their numbers.

“It’s amazing that we’re finally opening up, but the outside area is just a fraction of the inside space,” said Xavier Denamur, the owner of five popular cafes and bistros. “It’s a start.” But as Parisians reclaimed the rhythm of city life, health experts warned that virus cases are still rising in Latin America, the world’s latest COVID-19 epicenter.

“Clearly the situation in many South American countries is far from stable. There is a rapid increase in cases and those systems are coming under increasing pressure,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program.

His warning came as some of Brazil’s hardest-hit cities, including the jungle city of Manaus and the sprawling metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, were starting to allow more business activity. Brazil has reported more than 526,000 infections, second only to the 1.8 million cases reported by the U.S.

Bolivia and Venezuela have also started opening up their economies, Ecuador has resumed flights and shoppers have returned to Colombia’s malls. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered a personal note of caution to his country’s gradual roll-back of virus restrictions by opting to drive 1,000 miles instead of flying to promote a key infrastructure project.

Despite its public praise of China, the WHO was deeply frustrated with Chinese authorities for not immediately providing the world body with information it needed to fight the spread of the deadly virus, the Associated Press has found.

Tight controls on information and competition within China’s health services are believed to be why the country delayed releasing the genetic map, or genome, of the virus for more than a week after three different government labs had fully decoded the information.

WHO officials publicly lauded China to coax more information out of the government, but privately complained in the first week of January that China wasn’t sharing enough data to assess how the virus spread between people or what the global risk was, costing valuable time.

As economic fallout from the pandemic slammed economies around the world, more than 225 current and former global VIPs urged the leaders of the Group of 20 major economic powers to back a $2.5 trillion plan to tackle COVID-19 and launch an economic recovery from the pandemic.

They said poor and middle-income countries, which represent nearly 70% of the world’s population, need immediate action. Back in Europe, France on Tuesday put technology to work to check the spread of the virus by rolling out its StopCovid contact-tracing app as neighboring countries including the U.K., Germany and Italy prepared to launch their own versions.

French users can voluntarily download the app on their smartphones. If they test positive, they’ll will be able to notify others who have been in close contact for at least 15 minutes. But in Russia, a flood of complaints has met the app designed to track Moscow’s quarantined coronavirus patients.

The app’s nearly 70,000 registered users were subject to fines if they left their home or if they failed to take a selfie when directed to do so to prove their location. Some people said the app asked for selfies in the middle of the night.

“I don’t mind paying a fine for something I did wrong, but I don’t understand what I’m paying for here,” said Grigory Sakharov who was handed six fines — two of which were given before he installed the app while he was still in the hospital recovering.

Russian authorities, who have handed out 54,000 fines, insisst they have only been issued to those who repeatedly violated quarantine regulations. British lawmakers were returning to Parliament on Tuesday but some are sharply critical of the government’s decision to scrap a remote-voting system used during the country’s lockdown. They worry that an end to the country’s unprecedented but brief experiment with virtual voting will turn those who must stay at home because of age, illness or family responsibilities into second-class lawmakers.

Britain’s Conservative government says lawmakers should be setting an example by showing up in person as the country gets back to work. But critics argue it’s too risky to return to Parliament. “Asking people to travel from all corners of the U.K. to go to the global hot spot that is London … is gambling with the virus,” said Scottish National Party lawmaker Angus MacNeil.

Britain’s statistics agency said the U.K. had 48,106 coronavirus-related deaths up to the week ending May 22. That number dwarfs the government’s daily figures, which are based on initial cause of death assessments and put COVID-related deaths at just above 39,000. The statistics agency numbers are collated from death registrations, which can take a couple of weeks to be issued. Britain is second only to the U.S. in the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

Meanwhile, Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London said he expects levels of coronavirus infections in the U.K. to “remain relatively flat between now and September.” But he told the House of Lords that the “real uncertainty” will be in September — a time when respiratory viruses start spreading more forcefully.

Worldwide, 6.5 million people have been infected with the virus, which has killed over 375,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts believe is too low because many people died without being tested. The United States has seen over 105,000 deaths and Europe has had nearly 175,000.

South Africa’s coronavirus cases jumped again to more than 35,000 as the country began easing its lockdown. The country has seen cases double roughly every 12 days. As economic fallout slammed economies around the world, more than 225 current and former global VIPs urged the leaders of the Group of 20 major economic powers to back a $2.5 trillion plan to tackle COVID-19 and launch an economic recovery. They said poor and middle-income countries, which represent nearly 70% of the world’s population, need immediate action.

Hadjicostis reported from Nicosia, Cyprus. Reporters from around the world contributed to this report.

Virus cases drop to zero in China but surge in Latin America

May 23, 2020

TOKYO (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic continued to drop in much of Asia on Saturday even as the outbreak surged in Latin America, as the world grappled with balancing the urge to restart economies with fears about health risks.

China, where the outbreak began late last year, reported no new confirmed cases for the first time. In South Korea, there were 23 fresh infections, mostly from the densely populated Seoul area where authorities shut down thousands of nightclubs, bars and karaoke rooms to stem transmissions.

The encouraging signs are likely to set off a much awaited thrust to get back to business as governments have been readying social-distancing measures to reopen economies. In Japan, a group representing bar hostesses and other nightlife workers issued guidelines to protect employees as outfits reopen, telling them to wear masks, gargle every 30 minutes and disinfect karaoke microphones after each use.

The Bank of Japan, which recently announced measures to ensure easy lending in the world’s third largest economy, said in a joint statement with the government that both sides “will work together to bring the Japanese economy back again on the post-pandemic solid growth track.”

Japan’s new cases have dwindled lately to double-digit figures each day. Deaths related to the coronavirus are below 800 people. South Korea had been reporting around 500 new cases a day in early March before using aggressive tracing and testing to stabilize its outbreak. More than 200 of the recent infections have been linked to clubgoers in Seoul as the country began easing restrictions.

In the U.S., some regions were opening more quickly than others. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home order by slightly more than two additional weeks, through June 12, while keeping theaters, gyms and other places of public accommodation closed until at least then.

The Democratic governor also kept her coronavirus emergency declaration through June 19. Both the stay-at-home measure and state of emergency had been set to expire late next Thursday, though Whitmer said extensions were likely.

“While the data shows that we are making progress, we are not out of the woods yet. If we’re going to lower the chance of a second wave and continue to protect our neighbors and loved ones from the spread of this virus, we must continue to do our part by staying safer at home,” said Whitmer, whom President Donald Trump has pushed to reopen the state.

Michigan on Friday reported 5,158 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19 complications, the fourth largest tally of any state. The daily death toll rose by 29 and the number of new confirmed cases in the state increased by 403, to nearly 54,000 since the pandemic started.

Nevada is preparing to reopen its shuttered casinos, including glitzy ones in Las Vegas. Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, has set a tentative June 4 date, as Nevada continues to see decreasing cases of the coronavirus and hospitalizations of COVID-19. Some restrictions began to be lifted nearly two weeks ago.

Nevada’s gambling regulators plan to meet Tuesday and will consider reopening plans submitted from casinos, which need to be approved at least seven days before restarting. By country, the U.S. has been the hardest hit, with more than 96,000 deaths among 1.6 million confirmed cases.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said there have been 75 cases of COVID-19 in the U.N.’s 13 far-flung peacekeeping missions, which have a total of 110,000 troops, police and personnel. U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix told reporters that preventive measures taken early on in the crisis appear to have prevented the spread of the virus, with the exception of conflict-torn Mali where 58 cases were reported. He said there have been no deaths and none of the cases was serious.

Latin America’s two largest nations — Mexico and Brazil — reported record numbers of infections and deaths almost daily this week, fueling criticism of their presidents, who have slow-walked shutdowns in an attempt to limit economic damage.

Brazil has reported more than 330,000 confirmed cases, surpassing Russia to become the nation with the second-highest number of infections, behind only the U.S., according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Brazil also has recorded more than 21,000 deaths, though experts believe the numbers are higher.

The virus “does not forgive,” Uber driver Bruno Almeida de Mello said at the burial of his grandmother Vandelma Rosa, 66, in Rio de Janeiro. “It does not choose race or if you are rich or poor, black or white. It’s a cruel disease.”

De Mello said his grandmother’s death certificate reads “suspected of COVID-19,” but the hospital didn’t have the tests necessary to confirm it. That means her death was not counted in the official toll.

Experts said the surging deaths across Latin America showed the limits of government action in a region where millions have informal jobs and many police forces are weak or corrupt and unable to enforce restrictions. Infections also rose and intensive-care units were swamped in Peru, Chile and Ecuador, countries lauded for imposing early and aggressive business shutdowns and quarantines.

Colombia’s Ministry of Health also reported its biggest daily increases Friday, with 801 new confirmed infections and 30 deaths. Nearly 20,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus in a country that has been locked down for nearly two months.

Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.

Brazil edges toward being next big coronavirus hot spot

April 28, 2020

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil is emerging as potentially the next big hot spot for the coronavirus amid President Jair Bolsonaro’s insistence that it is just a “little flu” and that there is no need for the sharp restrictions that have slowed the infection’s spread in Europe and the U.S.

As some U.S. states and European countries moved gradually Monday to ease their limits on movement and commerce, the intensifying outbreak in Brazil — Latin America’s biggest country, with 211 million people — pushed some hospitals to the breaking point, with signs that a growing number of victims are now dying at home.

“We have all the conditions here for the pandemic to become much more serious,” said Paulo Brandão, a virologist at the University of Sao Paulo. Brazil officially reported about 4,500 deaths and almost 67,000 confirmed infections. But the true numbers there, as in many other countries, are believed to be vastly higher given the lack of testing and the many people without severe symptoms who haven’t sought hospital care.

Some scientists said over 1 million in Brazil are probably infected. The country is heading into winter, which can worsen respiratory illnesses. Worldwide, the death toll topped 210,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The number of dead in the U.S. surpassed 55,000 — close to the 58,000 U.S. troops killed during the Vietnam War. Italy, Britain, Spain and France accounted for more than 20,000 deaths each.

In other developments:

— U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday that deaths in the United States from the coronavirus could reach as high as 70,000, after putting the number at 60,000 several times earlier this month.

— The Trump administration worked to draw up new guidelines for how restaurants, schools, churches and businesses can safely reopen. The administration also unveiled a “blueprint” for states to scale up their virus testing in the coming week. Still, there were doubts from public health experts that the new testing targets were sufficient.

— The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded the list of people to be prioritized for virus testing to include those who show no symptoms but are in high-risk settings such as nursing homes.

— British Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work after a bout with the virus and warned strongly against easing his own country’s lockdown too soon: “I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life.”

— New York canceled its Democratic presidential primary, set for June 23, since Bernie Sanders has already conceded the nomination to Joe Biden. In a bit of encouraging news, the state reported 337 deaths for the lowest daily count this month, down from nearly 800 almost three weeks ago.

— Massachusetts recorded its 3,000th known death from the virus. The state is “still in the surge and very much in the fight against COVID-19,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. In Brazil, Bolsonaro has disputed the seriousness of the coronavirus and said people need to resume their lives to prevent an economic meltdown. But most state governors in the country have adopted restrictions to slow the spread and pushed people to stay at home.

In mid-April, Bolsonaro fired his popular health minister after a series of disagreements over efforts to contain the virus, replacing him with an advocate for reopening the economy. Residents protested, leaning out their windows to bang pots and pans.

Medical officials in Rio de Janeiro and at least four other major cities have warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse or too overwhelmed to take any more patients. Officials in Sao Paulo — the largest city in South America, a tightly packed metropolitan area of over 21 million residents, many living in poverty — have issued death certificates over the past two weeks for 236 people who succumbed at home, double the number before the outbreak, according to the SAMU paramedic service.

Manaus, an Amazon city of 1.8 million, recorded 142 deaths on Sunday, the most yet, including 41 who died at home. In the main cemetery, workers have been digging mass graves. Brazil’s funeral industry warned last week that the city was running out of coffins and “there could soon be corpses left on corners.”

In the U.S., the governors of Nevada and Colorado announced their states will join California, Oregon and Washington state in coordinating their reopenings. The governors of all five states are Democrats.

In Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has let businesses reopen, restaurants received the go-ahead to resume dine-in service as long as they follow certain restrictions, including keeping tables 6 feet (2 meters) apart.

At Plucked Up Chicken & Biscuits in Columbus, Georgia, eight regulars showed up in the morning to have their coffee and breakfast and “chatted at each other across the room,” manager Alesha Webster said. But only 10 customers could be inside at a time, well below the capacity of 45.

Alex Brounstein, owner of the Atlanta-based chain Grindhouse Killer Burgers, had no plans to reopen right away. “You’re talking about people putting their mouths on things in your restaurant. You now have dirty dishes going back into your kitchen. To me, it’s just completely illogical,” he said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday outlined a slow reopening, allowing restaurants, retailers, movie theaters and malls to start letting customers trickle into their establishments starting Friday. The state has one of the world’s largest economies.

Technology is likely to play an important role in helping countries ease their restrictions. Many countries, including Italy, France, Switzerland and Britain, are working on virus-tracking apps and other means of reducing the labor-intensive task of tracing infected people’s contacts.

In Australia, with about 80 COVID-19 deaths, 1.1 million of the country’s 26 million people downloaded a new contact-tracing app within 12 hours of its becoming available.

Biller and De Sousa reported from Rio de Janeiro and Geller from New York. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

Virus tamed in New Zealand, while Brazil emerges as hot spot

April 28, 2020

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Surfers in New Zealand hit the waves at dawn, builders returned to construction sites and baristas fired up their espresso machines as the nation eased a strict lockdown Tuesday amid hopeful signs the coronavirus has been all but vanquished Down Under — at least for now.

But elsewhere, Brazil was emerging as a potential new hot spot for infections, and fresh doubts were raised over whether Japan would be able to host the already postponed Olympic Games next year. Europe and some U.S. states were also continuing to gradually ease limits on movement and commerce as they tried to restart their economies.

But in a reminder of the virus’s increasing toll, President Donald Trump said the numbers of deaths could reach 70,000 in the U.S., after putting the number at 60,000 several times earlier this month.

With the number of new cases waning, New Zealand’s government loosened its lockdown, which for more than a month had shuttered schools and most businesses, and only allowed people to leave their homes for essential work, to get groceries or to exercise.

Most students will continue studying from home and workers are still required to work from home if they can, while everyone is required to maintain social distancing. But restaurants can now reopen for takeaway orders, construction can restart, and golfers and surfers can play.

New Zealand reported just three new infections on Tuesday and the country’s health authorities said they’re winning the battle against the virus. Nevertheless they cautioned people not to get complacent and to maintain social distancing.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said people had done an incredible job to break the chain of transmission, but cautioned they needed to remain vigilant. Quoting a microbiologist, Ardern said “there may still be some smoldering ashes out there, and they have the potential to become a wildfire again, if we give them the chance.”

In Australia, authorities reopened Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach to swimmers and surfers on Tuesday and hundreds returned to the water as soon as the restrictions were lifted. People can only use the beach during daylight hours, cannot linger on the sand and are counted to ensure social distancing.

In Japan, a top medical expert said he thinks it will be difficult to hold the Olympics in 2021 without an effective coronavirus vaccine. “I hope vaccines and drugs will be developed as soon as possible,” said Yoshitake Yokokura, the president of the Japan Medical Association.

Japan and the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games until July next year due to the pandemic. Japan is under a monthlong state of emergency amid a rapid increase of infections throughout the country, where hospitals are overburdened.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has insisted COVID-19 is just a “little flu” and that there is no need for the type of restrictions that have slowed the infection’s spread in Europe and the U.S. Brazil has reported 4,600 deaths and 67,000 confirmed infections. But the true numbers are believed to be vastly higher given the lack of testing and the many people without severe symptoms who haven’t sought hospital care.

Medical officials in Rio de Janeiro and at least four other major cities have warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse or are too overwhelmed to take any more patients. There are also signs that a growing number of victims are now dying at home. Brazil is Latin America’s biggest country, with 211 million people.

“We have all the conditions here for the pandemic to become much more serious,” said Paulo Brandão, a virologist at the University of Sao Paulo. Bolsonaro has disputed the seriousness of the coronavirus and said people need to resume their lives to prevent an economic meltdown. But most state governors in the country have adopted restrictions to slow the spread and pushed people to stay at home.

In other developments, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work after a bout with the virus and warned strongly against easing his own country’s lockdown too soon: “I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life.”

And New York canceled its Democratic presidential primary, set for June 23, since Bernie Sanders has already conceded the nomination to Joe Biden. The state reported 337 deaths for the lowest daily count this month, down from nearly 800 almost three weeks ago.

The number of confirmed infections in the U.S. has risen to nearly 1 million, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, although the true number is likely much higher because not everybody who contracts the virus is tested.

Worldwide, the death toll topped 210,000. The number of dead in the U.S. surpassed 56,000. Italy, Britain, Spain and France accounted for more than 20,000 deaths each.

Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

Trump: US to deploy anti-drug Navy ships near Venezuela

April 02, 2020

MIAMI (AP) — President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that Navy ships are being moved toward Venezuela as his administration beefs up counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean following a U.S. drug indictment against Nicolás Maduro.

The president’s announcement was a break from the daily White House press briefing to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, which has left much of the country in lock-down and which the government warns could cause 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.

“The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro and his criminal control over the country, and drug traffickers are seizing on this lawlessness,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said after the president’s announcement.

The mission involves sending additional Navy warships, surveillance aircraft and special forces teams to nearly double the U.S. counter-narcotics capacity in the Western Hemisphere, with forces operating both in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific. Esper said the mission would be supported by 22 partner nations.

“As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus there is a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain,” said Trump. “We must not let that happen.”

The enhanced mission has been months in the making but has taken on greater urgency following last week’s indictment of Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled socialist leader, and members of his inner circle and military. They are accused of leading a narcoterrorist conspiracy responsible for smuggling up to 250 metric tons of cocaine a year into the U.S., about half of it by sea.

“If I was just indicted for drug trafficking by the United States, with a $15 million reward for my capture, having the U.S. Navy conducting anti-drug operations off my coast would be something I would worry about,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has been among those calling for a tougher stance against Maduro.

It also comes as Maduro steps up attacks on his U.S.-backed rival, Juan Guaidó. Maduro’s chief prosecutor ordered Guaidó to provide testimony Thursday as part of an investigation into an alleged coup attempt. Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s congress who is recognized as his country’s legitimate leader by the U.S. and almost 60 other nations, is unlikely to show up, raising the possibility he could be arrested. The U.S. has long insisted it will not tolerate any harm against Guaido.

“No matter where you sit ideologically, any move to try to bring democracy back to Venezuela requires first recognizing the criminal nature of the Maduro regime, and making moves that scare the regime into negotiating,” said Raul Gallegos, a Bogota, Colombia-based director in the Andean region for Control Risks, a consulting group.

Maduro has blasted the Trump administration’s offer of a $15 million reward for his arrest, calling it the work of a “racist cowboy” aimed at getting U.S. hands on Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, the world’s largest. He also points out that the vast majority of cocaine leaves South America from Colombia, a staunch U.S. ally.

Others have faulted a U.S. plan, unveiled Tuesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to create a five-member council without Maduro or Guaidó to govern the country until elections can be held within a year. While its the first attempt in months by the U.S. to seek a negotiated solution to Venezuela’s stalemate, coming on the heels of the indictments many say it has little hope of succeeding and likely to drive Maduro farther away from the path of dialogue.

The Trump administration has long insisted that all options are on the table for removing Maduro, including military ones. Still, there’s no indication then, or now, that any sort of U.S. invasion is being planned.

Rather, the sending of ships fits into a longstanding call by the U.S. Southern Command for additional assets to combat growing antinarcotics and other security threats in the hemisphere. In January, another Navy vessel, the USS Detroit, conducted a freedom of navigation operation off the coast of Venezuela in a show of pressure against Maduro.

“That presence sends a big statement about U.S. commitment, it sends a big statement to our friends, it reassures them, and then to our adversaries that those are capable performers,” Adm. Craig Faller, the head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, said in congressional testimony last month.

The report of the planned deployment comes two days after one of Venezuela’s naval patrol boats sank after colliding with a Portuguese-flagged cruise ship near the Venezuelan-controlled island of La Tortuga. Maduro accused the ship of acting aggressively and said it was possibly carrying “mercenaries” seeking his ouster.

“You have to be very naive to see this as an isolated incident,” Maduro said Tuesday night on state TV. But Columbia Cruise Services, the operator of the cruise ship, said the patrol boat fired gunshots and than purposely rammed into the liner at speed. There were no passengers on board and none of its 32 crew members were injured, the company said.

Ending Putin’s support of Venezuela no easy feat for US

February 19, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — In October 2016, the head of Russia’s largest oil company traveled to the birthplace of Hugo Chávez, in the empty, sweltering plains of Venezuela, to unveil a giant bronze statue of the late socialist leader that he and his longtime friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, commissioned from a prominent Russian artist.

It was a turning point in the relationship between Russia and Venezuela, and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin brought with him a 600-year-old choir from a Moscow monastery to celebrate. Speaking to throngs of red-shirted government supporters in fluent Spanish gleaned from his days as a Soviet military translator in Africa, Sechin praised Chávez as a “leader of multi-polarity” and a “symbol of an entire era.”

“We have no choice between victory or death,” said Sechin, quoting a Venezuelan independence hero to describe the deepening ties between the two U.S. adversaries. ”We must achieve victory.” Now the Trump administration wants to break up that blossoming alliance as part of its campaign to oust Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.

On Tuesday, the Treasury Department blocked U.S. companies from doing business with Rosneft Trading SA, accusing the Geneva subsidiary of the Russian state-owned oil giant of providing a critical lifeline to Maduro as he seeks to bypass U.S. sanctions.

For months, U.S. officials have been warning foreign companies that they could face retaliation if they continue to do business with Maduro. Those admonishments have been aimed primarily at Russia, which U.S. officials say handles about 70% of Venezuelan oil transactions that have been rerouted since the Trump administration a year ago made it illegal for Americans to by crude from Venezuela.

Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuelan oil expert at Rice University in Houston, said the latest actions should send a chill through companies in Spain, China and elsewhere that continue to partner with state-run oil monopoly PDVSA. It could also foretell the ending of a special license for Chevron that has so far exempted the San Ramon, California-based company from having to pull out of the country, where it’s a partner in joint ventures with PDVSA that produce about a quarter of the OPEC nation’s total production.

“It’s no longer the dog barking,” said Monaldi. “It’s biting now.” PDVSA in a statement condemned what it called “economic assassination” by the U.S. aimed at taking control of Venezuela’s oil industry. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the new actions would bolster Venezuela’s lawsuit filed against the Trump administration at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Rosneft operates with PDVSA several oil fields that it acquired after U.S. drillers were forced out by Chavez’s nationalization drive. But as the new, go-to supplier of the country’s pariah crude it wins two ways, according to analysts. First, Rosneft purchases Venezuela’s premium Merey 16 crude at a steep discount. It then uses the proceeds from its sale to pay down $6.5 billion lent to PDVSA since 2014 for the purchase of Russian-made weaponry and other goods.

Meanwhile, refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast that used to depend on Venezuela’s heavy crude have nearly tripled their imports of unfinished Russian petroleum products in the year since sanctions have been in place, according to U.S. Energy Department data.

To avoid complications for customers in China and India, Rosneft has been hiring tankers that try to hide their cargo by turning off their mandatory tracking systems and carrying out risky ship-to-ship transfers off the coast of west Africa and other distant locations.

In the short term, he expects Maduro will have to pay more to find another intermediary to take on the added risk of moving the country’s oil. That means his cash-strapped government will have even less money to import scarce food and medical supplies as well as repair the country’s crumbling electricity infrastructure. And with storage facilities already at capacity, production that is already at a seven-decade low is likely to fall even further, he added.

Still, short of a U.S. naval blockade of Venezuelan ports — a military option that the Trump administration has refused to rule out but has shown no sign of pursuing — nobody expects oil sales from the nation sitting atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves to dry up completely.

“They can find always find ways to sell it, but it’s much harder,” said Monaldi. Even less clear is the impact on the U.S.’ goal of engaging Russia to find a solution to Venezuela’s year-old political impasse.

The U.S. leads a group of now nearly 60 nations that recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader following what it considers Maduro’s fraudulent 2018 re-election. In turn, Russia has accused the Trump administration of spreading false information to engineer a coup, needling the U.S. in what has traditionally been considered Washington’s backyard as the two sides wage proxy battles for influence in Syria, Ukraine and other global hot spots.

Richard Nephew, an energy researcher at Columbia University, said that in sparing Rosneft itself, and only going after one of its many units, the impact on Russia’s continued political support for Maduro is likely to be more muted.

The bulk of Rosneft’s long-term supply contracts are arranged directly by the parent company in Moscow, with the Swiss-based trading unit handling spot sales, he said. The sanctions also include a three-month winding down period, which should give the company — and ravenous oil traders — plenty of time to redirect transactions, including with Venezuela.

In addition, Rosneft and Sechin were already partially sanctioned in 2014 in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. As a result, many U.S. companies had already been steering clear of the company.

“This seems more like a warning shot designed to look bigger than it actually is,” said Nephew, who helped design U.S. sanctions policy while at the State Department under President Barack Obama. “It’s shooting someone who is Russian sounding without really punishing the Russians themselves.”

Several pro-Putin lawmakers were dismissive of the actions, saying they would appeal to the World Trade Organization to remove what they described as unilateral, unlawful U.S. actions. “I think this issue can be resolved,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told RIA Novosti news agency. “They’re smart over there (in Rosneft) and they will find a way to get around it.”

But even if Putin maintains outward support for Maduro, it’s unclear if he’ll double down and lend even more money to the bankrupt country. At the height of unrest in 2018, anti-government protesters tried to destroy the Chávez statue dedicated by Russia. Today, it’s under heavy guard, pointing to the uneasy calm that prevails in the normally pro-government Venezuelan countryside, where power outages are an almost daily occurrence and misery widespread.

While Venezuela has stayed current on its debt to Russia, and is expected to pay off the last remaining amount in the coming weeks, it’s defaulted on almost all other lenders and investors in the country’s bonds. Meanwhile, its debt with Russia is backed by a lien on 49.9% of PDVSA’s American subsidiary, Houston-based CITGO, control of which the Trump administration has handed to a board named by Guaidó.

“The Russians are nothing if not good chess players,” Russ Dallen, the Miami-based head of Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, wrote in a recent report. Rosneft’s “choice here will be an important tell for us about the future direction of their policy.”

Goodman reported from Miami.

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