Coronavirus World News: Economic Chaos Fuels Hunger and Strongmen

The coronavirus and an oil glut yield chaos worldwide.

From Iraq to Venezuela, nations reliant on oil sales have seen the combination of the price collapse and the coronavirus pandemic create new threats of poverty and political instability.

Countries with economies that are heavily reliant on oil production are finding themselves in a dual crisis, and others have been forced to change policies that no longer make economic sense.

While Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States — the biggest oil producers — have large financial cushions, the steep drop in demand as the world was put under lockdown has upended everything. It was a possibility even veteran industry experts did not foresee.

“No one imagined a crisis of this scope,” said Daniel Yergin, an expert on global energy and vice chairman of IHS Markit, a research firm. “This was in no scenario.”

“The idea that we are energy dominant or independent is a fallacy,” said Jason Bordoff, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and founding director of its Center on Global Energy Policy. The global market’s effect on the United States, he said, has “revealed that when oil prices rise, we feel the pain, and when oil prices collapse, we need to call Moscow and Riyadh to do something about it.”

After record-breaking declines earlier in the week, oil prices rebounded somewhat on Wednesday, though at historically low levels, and major stock indexes gained about 2 percent.

The increasingly autocratic governments of Poland and Hungary are using the pandemic to consolidate power and punish opponents, while the European Union, though critical, has not intervened.

In fact, the bloc is helping them with emergency aid intended to fight the coronavirus, funneling the money to member countries with little oversight, and without tying the money to the rule of law or democratic values. The funds were distributed under a formula that sent far more to Hungary and Poland than to virus-ravaged Spain or Italy.

Hungary’s Parliament has granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban emergency powers to deal with the crisis — powers he is using to divert tax receipts from opposition mayors and direct them to his allies.

Poland’s government says it will proceed with a presidential election on May 10, despite a lockdown that prevents opposition candidates from campaigning effectively. It plans to have all ballots cast by mail, which the postal union says is unworkable.

Last month, the European Union hastily earmarked 37 billion euros, about $40 billion, for virus aid, repurposing funds designed primarily to help newer and poorer member countries.

In Kenya, a recent giveaway of flour and cooking oil set off a fatal stampede. In India, thousands of workers have lined up twice a day for bread and fried vegetables. Across Colombia, families are hanging red clothing from windows to signal that they are in need of food.

The national lockdowns and social distancing measures caused by the pandemic are drying up work and incomes. And around the world, poor people are facing the prospect of starving.

Already, from Honduras to South Africa to India, protests and looting have broken out amid frustrations from lockdowns and worries about hunger.

“Instead of coronavirus, the hunger will kill us,” said Nihal Singh, a migrant worker in India. Mr. Singh said he was ashamed to beg for food but had no other option.

There is no shortage of food globally, and no mass starvation from the pandemic — yet. But logistical problems in planting, harvesting and transporting food will leave poor countries exposed in the coming months, said Johan Swinnen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

Even if there is no major surge in food prices, the food security situation for poor people is likely to deteriorate significantly worldwide. This is especially true for economies like Sudan and Zimbabwe that were struggling before the outbreak, or those like Iran that have increasingly used oil revenues to finance critical goods like food and medicine.

And refugees and people living in conflict zones are expected to be hit the hardest.

As the 50th anniversary of International Earth Day was observed on Wednesday with drastic measures in force around the globe to fight the coronavirus pandemic, there were signs that those same measures can be beneficial for the environment.

Now that so much of the world is under lockdown, air quality has improved, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped and wild animals have come out to play in streets left empty by humans sheltering in place.

But the environmental silver lining of the pandemic is temporary, the United Nations warned in a statement on Wednesday, because it comes “on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress.”

The U.N. added that Earth was “urging a call to action” and said the pandemic was linked to our ecosystem’s health.

“Climate change, man-made changes to nature as well as crimes that disrupt biodiversity, such as deforestation, land-use change, intensified agriculture and livestock production or the growing illegal wildlife trade, can increase contact and the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to humans,” like Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, the organization said.

After coronavirus protests in prisons, Iran may be executing inmates at a faster pace.

Iran may be accelerating the execution of prisoners, in particular putting to death those who took part in protests over fears that the coronavirus was spreading through crowded and unsanitary prisons, the United Nations human rights chief said on Wednesday.

In just the past four days, two inmates were executed for crimes they committed when they were under 18, in violation of international law, said Michelle Bachelet, the high commissioner for human rights.

She called the executions of the minors “reprehensible,” and said they raised “grave concerns about the possibility of expedited executions of other death-row prisoners who were involved in those protests.”

Human rights activists say the expedited executions may be meant to warn prisoners against further protests.

Shayan Saeedpour, sentenced to death for a fatal stabbing when he was 17, was among 80 prisoners who broke out of Saqez prison in western Iran last month. The authorities recaptured him days later and hanged him on Tuesday, despite United Nations appeals for clemency.

Majid Esmailzadeh was executed on Saturday for a killing that took place when he was 17.

A third under-18 offender on death row, Danial Zeinolabedini, was beaten to death by staff members at Miandoab prison in West Azerbaijan Province in early April, according to the United Nations human rights office. It said he had been transferred there after joining a protest against conditions and the authorities’ refusal to grant inmates temporary release.

Iran did temporarily release around 1,000 foreign prisoners after the onset of the pandemic.

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.

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.

The doctor who led the federal agency involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine said on Wednesday that he was removed from his post after he pressed for a rigorous vetting of a coronavirus treatment embraced by President Trump. The doctor said that science, not “politics and cronyism,” must lead the way.

Dr. Rick Bright was abruptly dismissed this week as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, and as the deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

Instead, he was given a narrower job at the National Institutes of Health. “I believe this transfer was in response to my insistence that the government invest the billions of dollars allocated by Congress to address the Covid-19 pandemic into safe and scientifically vetted solutions, and not in drugs, vaccines and other technologies that lack scientific merit,” he said in a statement to The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman.

In Congress, House members returned to Washington, putting themselves at risk to approve a $484 billion emergency aid bill, after a plan to vote remotely was blocked by the bill’s opponents.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, warned in an interview: “With the transmission characteristics we’ve seen, this is a virus that’s going to require at least 60 to 70 percent of population to be immune, from being infected or by vaccination, for substantial reduction of transmission.”

He added, “We have a long ways to go yet.”

Veterinarians tested both cats because they showed mild symptoms of a respiratory infection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. They were the first pets found to have been infected by the virus in the United States.

Testing positive does not mean the cats have the same illness that people have, nor does it mean that the cats can infect humans. The agencies emphasized that there was “no evidence that pets play a role in spreading the virus in the United States,” but recommended keeping them indoors to prevent contact with other animals or people.

The announcement about the tiger sparked concern in India, which is home to 2,967 wild tigers, roughly three-quarters of the world’s total remaining population not held in captivity. Tigers are known to suffer from respiratory ailments.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority and India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has advised wardens to restrict the movement of people into parks and reserves and observe tigers for respiratory symptoms.

“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.

In recent days, the number of burials in Manaus has more than tripled from the normal average of 30 per day to more than 100, the mayor’s office said in a statement.

Local officials are pleading for federal help.

“We’re beyond a state of emergency,” the mayor of Manaus, Arthur Virgílio Neto, said Tuesday in a statement. “The health care system no longer has the capacity to provide care to the patients that need it and people are starting to die at home.”

State officials said earlier this week that 91 percent of critical care hospital beds were occupied and expressed concern that the system would be unable to cope with the increase in patients.

Macarena Mairata, a spokeswoman at the Sustainable Amazonas Foundation, which has been providing aid to vulnerable populations in Manaus, said many residents in the state have been unable or unwilling to practice social distancing. That has been partly a result of the mixed messages they have received from the president and local officials, she said.

“There are people who still don’t believe the coronavirus can kill,” she said.

The pandemic offers Taiwan a chance to push back against China.

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.

“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.

A German biotechnology company said on Wednesday that a coronavirus vaccine candidate it had developed with the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer had been approved for clinical testing in Germany, raising hopes that a working coronavirus vaccine could become available soon.

The initial clinical trial will be carried out on 200 healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 55, the company said.

Mr. Raab spoke inside the parliamentary chamber, as did the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer. But to comply with social distancing rules, just a few dozen lawmakers sat on the green leather benches that are normally crowded at this time of the week.

Without the normal cheering, shouting and other background noise, the session was more sober than usual, as lawmakers quizzed Mr. Raab over the government’s management of the coronavirus crisis and called for more support for workers and businesses. There were no unscheduled interruptions and few technical glitches.

Mr. Starmer, attending the question session for the first time as opposition leader, said that Britain had been “slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment,” referring to supplies like masks and gowns used by health care workers. Mr. Raab defended the government’s record and argued that it had followed scientific advice.

Britain’s supplies of protective gear are critically low, and front-line health workers have been advised by the government to reuse the equipment worn while treating coronavirus patients. Health workers say that advice puts them at risk.

A British Royal Air Force plane carrying a delayed consignment of medical supplies from Turkey for the National Health Service landed early Wednesday, the Ministry of Defense said. It was expected to deliver 84 tons of personal protective equipment, including 400,000 surgical gowns, from a commercial supplier in Turkey on Sunday, but the equipment was delayed because the Turkish company was short on stock, Turkish officials said.

The government has also been criticized for not taking part in a European Union program to buy bulk medical equipment, including ventilators, protective equipment and testing kits.

The extraordinary action by the central bank was a reaction to fears that hundreds of billions of euros in corporate bonds were on the verge of being downgraded to junk status, because the companies that issued the debt may not be able to repay it.

The mass downgrades could cause severe financial turmoil because, under the old rules, banks that hold the debt could no longer use it as collateral to borrow from the central bank.

Eurozone banks can borrow as much money as they want from the European Central Bank, but must post collateral. Previously the central bank did not accept junk bonds, but it said Wednesday it would allow the debt as collateral as long as it was still rated investment grade on April 7.

The central bank said in a statement that an ample supply of collateral “is crucial for banks to provide funding to firms and households during the current challenging times.”

Eight infants and toddlers at a care center in Tokyo have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said on Wednesday, raising concerns about a wider outbreak at care facilities in the country for neglected or abused children.

Some people infected with the virus show no symptoms, and there have been cases of patients initially testing positive for the virus and later testing negative.

Japanese health officials have reported 11,496 infections and 277 deaths from the coronavirus.

The patient, a Palestinian-Syrian woman, tested positive on Tuesday, according to Tamara Alrifai, a spokeswoman for the agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. The woman is being hospitalized at Rafik Hariri Hospital in Beirut, the government’s main coronavirus treatment center, while her immediate family is tested for the virus.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees — people who were forced out or fled in the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948 and their descendants — live as perpetual outsiders in Lebanon, where they face systematic discrimination. They are barred from Lebanese citizenship and most professions and are forbidden from building permanent housing. They live in cramped, semi-permanent structures in a network of 12 camps and 26 informal settlements around the country, making social distancing difficult, if not impossible.

As many as 3,000 people live in the patient’s camp, which is in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Ms. Alrifai said. Lebanon also hosts more than one million Syrian refugees who sought refuge from the nine-year civil war next door. They, too, live in squalid, crowded conditions in informal camps around the country.

Aid groups fear that a coronavirus outbreak in the refugee camps could inflame the hostility and tension between Palestinian and Syrian communities and their Lebanese neighbors. Seeking to forestall accusations that Palestinians are draining already-stretched Lebanese government resources, the United Nations group has pledged to cover the cost of hospitalization for Palestinian refugees, Ms. Alrifai said.

It is also close to opening an isolation center with Doctors Without Borders dedicated to Palestinian refugees.

President Trump’s moves to block the legal flow of people into the United States have sown confusion and fear among foreign workers already in the country and those hoping to make the move, and people from India are among the most affected.

Under pressure from businesses, Mr. Trump backed away from halting temporary work visas, but he said he might impose more restrictions as the crisis drags on.

Visa programs have been vital to technology companies looking for engineers and programmers, many of whom come from India, and people who move to the United States on work visas often apply later for permanent residency.

More recent immigrants fear not only the loss of jobs as the economy contracts, but also a wave of xenophobia.

When Mr. Trump announced his plans, Priyanka Nagar, a software developer who has lived in the United States for more than a decade, happened to be in India, awaiting a visa extension, and feared being cut off from her husband and 5-year-old daughter. She and her husband have applied for green cards.

“I beg the government not to think of us as enemies,” said Ms. Nagar, 39. “I want the U.S. to prosper. It has given us so much.”

She drives from the Danish side, in her Toyota Yaris.

He cycles from the German side, on his electric bike.

She brings the coffee and the table, he the chairs and the schnapps.

Then they sit down on either side of the border, a yard or two apart.

And that is how two octogenarian lovers have kept their romance alive despite the closure of the border that falls between his home in the very north of Germany and hers in the very south of Denmark.

“We’re here because of love,” said Mr. Tüchsen Hansen. “Love is the best thing in the world.”

Then he poured another glass of schnapps.

As the number of new coronavirus cases in Spain has slowed in recent weeks, the government has been trying to figure out how and when to ease its lockdown.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told Parliament on Wednesday that the lockdown would be only partly eased in the second half of May, saying a “slow and gradual” approach was necessary “precisely because it needs to be safe.”

But with the largest outbreak in Europe, Spain still has hundreds of deaths a day. The country reported an uptick in its daily death toll on Wednesday, with 435 people dying overnight, bringing the total to 21,717.

Health officials say the death toll remains troubling, even as the infection rate and the number of hospital recoveries have improved this month. About 33,000 health care workers in Spain have tested positive for the virus, one of the highest numbers in the world.

Mr. Sánchez, who heads a minority coalition government, is asking lawmakers to approve an extension of the nationwide state of emergency until May 9.

Mr. Sánchez raised expectations over the weekend by promising that Spanish children would soon be allowed to leave the house. But on Tuesday, the government’s spokeswoman disappointed many by saying that children would be limited to accompanying an adult on an essential trip, such as going to the supermarket or the pharmacy.

“Nobody is measuring with a stopwatch how long it takes a person to buy bread,” the government spokeswoman, María Jesús Montero, said in response to many questions from journalists about why children would need to get their fresh air in a supermarket.

After an avalanche of criticism from politicians on all sides, health specialists and citizens who took to their balconies in Madrid to bang pots in protest, the government reversed its decision.

In another news conference, Salvador Illa, the health minister, said that, starting Sunday, children under 14 would be allowed to go for a short stroll, keeping a safe distance from others.

The Czech Republic began a five-step plan this week to ease restrictive measures introduced to halt the spread of the coronavirus, returning much of the country to some semblance of normalcy. Farmers markets, car dealerships, tailors, shoemakers and some other small businesses have reopened.

But safety measures are still in place, and maintaining social distancing and wearing masks in public is mandatory. If there is not a significant growth in new cases in the coming days, all shops no larger than 2,000 square feet will be allowed to open on Monday.

“We cannot allow for the virus, that we have managed relatively well so far in comparison with other countries, to spread uncontrollably,” said Karel Havlicek, the minister for industry and trade. “On the other hand, shops and services cannot be closed forever.”

The country has so far avoided the major outbreaks seen elsewhere, with 7,041 confirmed cases and 204 dead. Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he would like to end the state of emergency on April 30.

Weddings of up to 10 people are already allowed to go ahead as of this week, and some professional sports are allowed to hold practices.

The steps taken so far have been carefully calculated, and some shops and restaurants are scheduled to stay closed until June 8. The Czech Republic on Wednesday also began a broad antibody testing survey of 27,000 people from four regions in an attempt to get a clearer picture of how many Czechs have been infected.

“We believe it will allow us to better understand the situation and draft an accurate prediction of further development,” said Adam Vojtech, the minister of health.

Reporting was contributed by Nick Cumming-Bruce, Ernesto Londoño, Kai Schultz, Sameer Yasir, Abdi Latif Dahir, Steven Erlanger, Javier C. Hernández, Chris Horton, James Gorman, Gloria Dickie, Richard Pérez-Peña, Karen Zraick, Lauretta Charlton, Stephen Castle, Vivian Yee, Raphael Minder, Ceylan Yeginsu, Rick Gladstone, Megan Specia, Austin Ramzy, Iliana Magra, Christopher F. Schuetze, Hana Goeji, Yonette Joseph, Anna Holland, Richard C. Paddock, Dera Menra Sijabat, Matthew Futterman, Paul Mozur, Lin Qiqing, Jason M. Bailey, Richard C. Paddock, Saw Nang, Catherine Porter, Ianthe Jeanne Dugan, Cara Giaimo, Maggie Haberman, Edward Wong, Matthew Rosenberg and Julian E. Barnes and Patrick Kingsley.