Coronavirus World News: From Beirut to Hong Kong, the Pandemic Has Quieted Mass Protests


How long the pandemic lasts, and how governments and activists respond, will determine whether the current pause represents a moment of metamorphosis — or just an unceremonious end for some of the most widespread mass mobilizations in recent history.

The challenges to protesters, in places as different as Hong Kong and Lebanon, are apparent. Millions of demonstrators are hunkered down at home, hemmed in by sweeping quarantines and health concerns. The daily burden of acquiring face masks or food often overshadows debates about corruption and abuse of power.

Also, almost every government has restricted mass gatherings, ostensibly protecting public health but potentially also constraining future mobilization. Some have even used the outbreak to consolidate power or arrest opponents.

But the pandemic’s economic toll, as well as the crises of trust it has inspired in many governments, could fuel fresh outrage. People across the world — from Peru to France to the United States — have already defied lockdown measures that they say threaten their jobs, housing and food supplies.

Some protesters are also finding new ways to express their discontent. Chilean activists have projected images of crowds onto empty streets, for example. And in Hong Kong, a union of medical workers, itself born out of the pro-democracy protests, went on strike to criticize the government’s outbreak response.

“It is a rest time,” said Isaac Cheng, a student leader of Demosisto, a prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy group, “but it’s definitely not the end of the movement.”

Most clerics complied with the government’s announcement of a lockdown late last month, keeping people at home to avoid spreading the coronavirus. But some of the most influential imams immediately called on worshipers to attend Friday prayers in even greater numbers. Devotees attacked police officers who tried to get in their way.

As Ramadan draws closer, dozens of well-known clerics and leaders of religious parties — including some who had initially obeyed the lockdown orders — have signed a letter demanding that the government exempt mosques from the shutdown during the holy month or invite the wrath of God and the faithful.

On Saturday, the government gave in, signing an agreement that let mosques stay open for Ramadan as long as they followed 20 rules, including forcing congregants to maintain a six-foot distance, bring their own prayer mats and perform their ablutions at home. Prime Minister Imran Khan met with the clerics on Monday, who deferentially promising to abide by the deal.

“It is very difficult for the state to implement what’s best for the public good,” said Husnul Amin, an Islamabad-based professor and scholar on Islam and politics. “The larger public interest is always up against the clerics. It’s completely undemocratic.”

Even the country’s security forces, which empowered the clerical establishment in the 1980s in an effort to churn out jihadists to fight the Soviet military next door in Afghanistan, seemed unable to counter the imams.

In Karachi, the largest city, scenes emerged of worshipers chasing the police through narrow alleyways, pelting them with rocks and sending several officers to the hospital.

“The military has created a monster they can no longer control,” Mr. Amin said.

While clerics acknowledge that their mosques are perfect vectors for the coronavirus’s spread, some said they have to protect their bottom line: money and influence.

“We know the coronavirus pandemic is a global health issue, but religious duties cannot be abandoned,” said Maulana Ataullah Hazravi, a Karachi-based cleric. Besides, he added, “mosques depend largely on the donations collected during Ramadan.”

Several cities in China’s north have taken new epidemic prevention measures this week in an effort to stamp out a flare-up of the coronavirus.

The scale of new cases appears modest: Chinese state media tallied dozens of new infections, all of which experts said were linked to the return of Chinese from Russia and the United States. Still, it isn’t clear the spread has been entirely contained, and local governments put limits on travel and issued bulletins to increase vigilance.

Officials have stopped short of cutting off Harbin, a city of 10 million where the outbreak has been most severe, but the city said earlier this week that neighborhoods should ban outsiders from entering communities. Nearby Qiqihar also banned outsiders from visiting neighborhoods, and it warned residents against traveling to at-risk areas, including Harbin.

Another city, Hulunbuir, said on Monday that it had confirmed a case related to the spread in Harbin. One hotel in the city, the Hulunbuir Friendship Hotel, had taken matters into its own hands, posting in an online advertisement that it would not accept guests from neighboring Heilongjiang Province, of which Harbin is the capital.

For China, the new rules, and the prospect of further spread, are a harrowing reminder of this winter, when a vast portion of the country’s cities were locked down. And for the rest of the world, it’s a daunting sign of how challenging it can be to control the contagion — even after the worst seems to be over.

It also augurs poorly for hopes of quickly restarting economies. Instead, the new normal appears to be sporadic outbreaks followed by a scramble to bring things under control, with testing and harsh social-distancing rules.

For decades, the oil rigs rising out of the North Sea off Scotland provided Britain with hundreds of thousands of jobs in a thriving industry and billions in tax revenue.

Much of that now seems a memory. The collapse in oil prices from the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with infections aboard the drilling rigs, are imperiling the vast industry that sprawls across the waters off Scotland and Norway.

Oil companies are shelving investments worth billions of dollars. Staffing on the rigs has been cut, partly to reduce costs but also to provide some degree of social distancing on the often crowded platforms, putting those jobs at risk. At least two offshore workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We have gone through commodity swings and cycles of that nature, but this one is different,” said Jim House, chief executive of Neptune Energy, a private equity-backed oil and gas firm with production in both British and Norwegian waters. “We have never seen a world completely shut down,” he added.

More important, though, may be the impact on the future of the North Sea oil and gas industry. Its health depends on finding new undersea fields and bringing them into production, but if prices remain low, as some analysts think likely, that won’t happen.

The price of Brent crude, which was named for a North Sea oil field, has fallen by about 70 percent this year to just over $20 a barrel. Another type of crude, West Texas intermediate, shocked the industry when it fell into a negative price earlier this week.

A citizen journalist who disappeared in February after documenting the outbreak in Wuhan, China, said in a YouTube video that he had been released after a period of forced quarantine.

The journalist, Li Zehua, had spent weeks interviewing stranded migrant workers and overburdened crematory employees — an attempt to show the toll the outbreak was taking on the city where it began.

But until his latest video surfaced on Wednesday evening, he had not spoken publicly since Feb. 26, when he streamed footage of men entering his apartment.

In the new video, Mr. Li, 25, described being chased by a white S.U.V. that night, and hiding in his apartment in the dark. He said that men who identified themselves as security officials eventually took him to a police station for interrogation.

The authorities later said they had decided not to investigate him, but that he would need to be quarantined because he had visited “sensitive areas,” Mr. Li said in the video.

Mr. Li, who became a citizen journalist after a brief career as a host on state-run television, said he was quarantined from late February until mid-March at a Wuhan hotel. He was given regular meals and allowed to watch state-run television, he said, then driven to his hometown and ordered to quarantine for another two weeks.

In previous videos, Mr. Li had urged other Chinese young people to “stand up” and said he was no longer willing to “shut my eyes.” But in his latest one, he did not criticize the government.

Calmly, and almost without emotion, he said that the police had treated him well.

Mr. Li’s disappearance followed those of two other citizen journalists, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin, who had also filmed scenes of illness and death in Wuhan. Neither has reappeared.

President Trump on Wednesday said that he disagreed “strongly” with the Georgia governor’s decision to allow barbershops, nail salons and other businesses in the state to reopen this week.

“I think it’s too soon,” he said at a White House briefing.

Mr. Trump also said that the coronavirus “won’t be coming back in the form that it was” this fall or winter, then mused that it might not come back at all. But the government scientists flanking him at the White House news briefing explicitly disagreed with his predictions.

“There will be coronavirus in the fall,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert.

Here’s what else is happening in the U.S.:

  • California’s quest to retrace the early steps of the coronavirus entered a new phase Wednesday after officials linked the death of a 57-year-old woman in early February to the virus, placing it weeks before any other known death in the United States.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that Covid-19 could wreak havoc on the country anew next winter, with another wave coinciding with seasonal flu.

  • Rick Bright, the doctor who led the federal agency involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine said that he had been removed from his post. Dr. Bright, who had pressed for rigorous vetting of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug embraced by President Trump as a coronavirus treatment, accused the administration of putting “politics and cronyism ahead of science.”

  • President Trump signed an executive order imposing a 60-day halt in issuing green cards with numerous exemptions, including those for overseas spouses, guest workers and young children of American citizens.

  • The Education Department will prohibit colleges from granting emergency assistance to undocumented students, even those currently under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

Sightings of the actor Matt Damon have become common in recent weeks in Dalkey, a seaside resort town southeast of Dublin, where his presence has added yet another surreal layer to life under lockdown.

It’s not just that one of the world’s biggest stars and his family must stay within two kilometers (about 1.2 miles) of home. It’s that the actor — who played a father trying to protect his family amid a sprawling pandemic in the movie “Contagion” — is now living through an eerily similar reality.

Mr. Damon first arrived in Dalkey in mid-March to shoot a film with the director Ridley Scott. Production has since been suspended, and a photo of him at the beach — with a bag from a SuperValu market — led to delighted memes and glowing articles in the Irish press.

Mr. Damon’s new admirers are apparently also his protectors. That was clear to a New York Times reporter who requested anecdotes via the town’s unofficial Facebook page.

“Leave him be!” was a common theme, presented around 100 different ways.

“Love love the fact that everybody is looking to protect him like our own,” Cjhelle Griffiths wrote in one post.

Last week, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe announced that factories would reopen at reduced capacity, a rare bit of encouraging news for a nation that has been lashed by deadly hurricanes, a cholera outbreak and a horrific earthquake in just the past decade.

But with Haitian workers returning from the Dominican Republic — which has been hit hard by Covid-19 — the odds are stacked against the country and its weak health care system.

Most Haitians lack access to clean water, let alone soap, and many live in tightly packed slums where social distancing is impossible. The nation’s health care system is so threadbare that Haitians regularly die of easily treatable ailments like diarrhea.

Doctors estimate that the country will need 6,000 beds dedicated to Covid-19 patients. But the plan, which requires trained staff, personal protective equipment, as well as oxygen, is costly.

More than half of the population in Haiti lives hand-to-mouth, earning less than $2.41 per day, according to the World Bank. Experts say Haiti’s current low number of infections partly reflects the country’s dysfunction. Kidnappings have become so chronic that the United States issued a “do not travel” warning in early March.

But over recent weeks, thousands of Haitians have flooded back home each day from the Dominican Republic. Doctors have been screening at four official border checkpoints, but not at dozens of illegal crossings.

Watching the virus spread in the Dominican Republic next door, doctors worry an outbreak in Haiti would become comparable to the cholera epidemic that, starting in 2010, ripped through Haiti’s slums and tent camps, infecting more than 820,000.

Spread the word, the messages said: The Trump administration was about to lock down the entire country.

“They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” warned one of the messages, which cited a source in the Department of Homeland Security. “He said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.”

Since that wave of panic, United States intelligence agencies have assessed that Chinese operatives helped push the messages across platforms, according to six American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to publicly discuss intelligence matters. The amplification techniques are alarming to officials because the disinformation showed up as texts on many Americans’ cellphones, a tactic that several of the officials said they had not seen before.

That has spurred agencies to look at new ways in which China, Russia and other nations are using a range of platforms to spread disinformation during the pandemic, they said.

Officials in Taiwan are attempting to turn their success in battling the coronavirus at home into a geopolitical win, sending millions of masks emblazoned with the words “made in Taiwan” to countries hit hard by the crisis and launching a diplomatic and public relations campaign.

Taiwan is competing with China on pandemic aid diplomacy in defiance of Beijing’s efforts to isolate the self-ruled democratic island that it claims as its own. The island is promoting itself as a model of democracy to try to undercut China’s own campaign to use the crisis to tout the strength of its authoritarian system.

And the world is responding. American and European officials have praised Taiwan’s donations of more than 10 million masks. Politicians, business leaders and celebrities, including Bill Gates and Barbra Streisand, have hailed the island as exemplary in its fight against the coronavirus.

“We can see that this is a good opportunity for us to let people know that Taiwan is a good global citizen,” Taiwan’s vice president, Chen Chien-jen, said this week in an interview in Taipei. “We have to fight for our participation.”

But the moves are drawing fire from Beijing, which has dismissed the effort as an attempt to “seek independence under the pretext of the pandemic.”

Taiwan, with a population of 23 million, has reported 426 cases of coronavirus and six deaths as of Wednesday, far fewer than many countries.

Social media challenges help to keep boredom at bay.

With the coronavirus continuing to upend familiar rhythms of life, leaving schools shuttered, millions out of work and billions stuck at home, those looking for ways to pass the time are turning to social media challenges.

Some bring together families for choreographed dance routines while others spark the inner artist or unlock hidden engineering skills. All of them hold the promise of warding off boredom and — maybe — earning users a moment of online celebrity.

The #FliptheSwitch challenge began last month, when the lyrics “I just flipped the switch” from the Drake song “Nonstop” inspired a viral challenge on TikTok that eventually made its way to Instagram. People began swapping clothes, poses and sometimes attitudes when the lights are switched off and then back on.

Joseph Feingold, a Holocaust survivor who found unexpected fame late in life as the co-star of “Joe’s Violin,” an Oscar-nominated short documentary, died on April 15 in New York City of Covid-19 complications. He was 97.

Born in Warsaw in 1923, Joseph Feingold was 17 when the Nazis invaded Poland. He and his father, a shoemaker, were caught by the Russian army while fleeing to Poland’s Russian-occupied east, and sent to separate labor camps in Siberia. His mother and a younger brother both stayed behind and perished in concentration camps.

While he was at a displaced person’s camp near Frankfurt, Germany, Mr. Feingold spotted a violin at a flea market and traded cigarettes for it. He later brought it with him when he emigrated to New York.

Here are three others we’ve lost to Covid-19:

  • Luis Sepúlveda, 70, a Chilean writer who was jailed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, became famous for his novel “The Old Man Who Read Love Stories.”

  • Liu Ouqing, 78, a former party secretary of the Wuhan Grain Bureau, helped ensure that the Chinese city had enough to eat.

  • Heherson Alvarez, 80, an activist who helped lead a campaign against the brutal regime of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, went on to serve in the national legislature.

Reporting was contributed by Melissa Eddy, Paul Mozur, Austin Ramzy, Heather Murphy, Maria Abi-Habib, Vivian Yee, Jason Gutierrez, Raphael Minder, Steven Kurutz, Edward Wong, Matthew Rosenberg, Julian E. Barnes, Dan Levin, Vivian Wang, Ron DePasquale, Katrin Bennhold, Steven Kurutz, Derrick Bryson Taylor and Stanley Reed. Albee Zhang and Wang Yiwei contributed research.





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