World update: April 14 2020

Stories from Yemen, China, Germany, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

April 13, 1953: Central Intelligence Agency director Allen Dulles orders the creation of Project MKUltra, a program for human experimentation into “mind control” drugs and techniques. Among its more unsavory components were experiments in which human subjects, often pulled involuntarily from prisons and mental institutions, were dosed with drugs (LSD in particular), usually without their consent. These experiments were conducted on US citizens but also surreptitiously on people overseas in places that came under US control after World War II. Some of the techniques it tested eventually found their way into the Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” (torture) program, and it has spawned innumerable conspiracy theories since its revelation in the post-Watergate environment of the 1970s.

April 13, 1975: An attack by Christian Phalangist militia fighters on a bus carrying Palestinian fighters and civilians in eastern Beirut triggers the Lebanese Civil War.

April 14, 43 BC: The legions of Mark Antony win a victory and suffer a defeat on the same day in the Battle of Forum Gallorum in northern Italy. Antony was besieging the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Decimus Brutus, who was one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, when he was confronted by a Republican army under the command of that year’s consuls, Aulus Hirtius and Gaius Vibius Pansa. The consular army had been bolstered by a group of veteran reinforcements under Caesar’s declared heir, his great nephew/adopted son Octavian, who commanded the units guarding their camp. Pansa was badly wounded and would die on April 22. The outcome here was inconclusive and led to a second, decisive engagement, the Battle of Mutina, a week later.

April 14, 1912: Shortly before midnight, the allegedly unsinkable ocean liner RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg and, well, begins sinking. In part due to the fact that it carried enough lifeboats for only about half of the passengers on board (and a third of the passengers it could have carried at full capacity), the Titanic’s sinking became one of the biggest maritime disasters in history, killing more than 1500 people.

The Titanic when she set sail on April 10, by Scottish photographer F. G. O. Stuart (Wikimedia Commons)

COVID-19

Worldometer’s pandemic figures for April 14:

  • 1,997,860 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide (+74,012 since yesterday)

  • 1,392,782 active cases

  • 126,599 reported fatalities (+6981 since yesterday)

The pandemic is creating an opportunity for some otherwise unsavory non-governmental actors to enhance their credibility:

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has dispatched health teams to far-flung provinces to confront the coronavirus. In Mexico, drug cartels are offering aid packages to those feeling its economic impact. In Brazil and El Salvador, gangs enforce curfews to prevent its spread.

As governments around the world have responded to the coronavirus, so too have armed insurgents and terrorist groups and drug cartels and gangs, a parallel underworld of public health policy and strategic messaging.

It is hardly the first time such groups have attempted to fill the role of government. But few crises in modern times have tested the limits of the world’s nation-states as the coronavirus has, providing an opening for armed groups to step in where presidents, police forces and parliaments have failed.

In some cases these groups are complementing official efforts, say by enforcing lockdowns in less populated areas while police focus on cities. That seems to be happening in parts of Mexico, Central America, and Italy. In others they’re entirely separate and auditioning themselves as alternative governments, as in the case of the Taliban or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 29 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (+4 since yesterday)

  • 2 reported fatalities (unchanged since yesterday)

Though Idlib province continues to get more attention, Al-Monitor’s Fehim Taştekin reports that there’s been regular fighting between Turkish-backed rebels and the Syrian Defense Forces in northeastern Syria over the past several weeks, despite fears about the coronavirus. Most of the clashes have occurred in the area around the border town of Ras al-Ayn and the nearby village of Tell Tamer. That said, the pace of fighting has definitely slowed, and inactivity appears to be creating some tension within the Turkish-rebel ranks. Some fighters in the “Syrian National Army”—Turkey’s rebranding of the rebel Free Syrian Army—are agitating for redeployment to the western side of the Euphrates (i.e., to Idlib, where they can fight government forces). In addition, factions of the SNA are starting to fight one another (violently, in some cases) for control over the financial spoils of war, by which I mean divvying up the protection/taxation racket in the towns they’ve seized.

YEMEN

  • 1 confirmed case (unchanged)

  • no reported fatalities

The two-week ceasefire that pro-government forces declared last week has, needless to say, not taken effect. The Saudl-led coalition says it’s documented over 240 Houthi “breaches” over the past 48 hours, though that’s stretching the term “breach” since the Houthis never reciprocated the ceasefire in the first place. The Houthis are advancing on the central Yemeni city of Marib and also have been active around Hudaydah, where they actually have agreed to a localized ceasefire. Their intent seems to be to attack Yemeni government forces while avoiding attacks near the Saudi border and any missile attacks against the Saudis directly. That was apparently their back channel counteroffer to the Saudi ceasefire, that they would stop attacking Saudi forces while continuing to fight the Yemeni government.

EGYPT

  • 2350 confirmed cases (+160)

  • 178 reported fatalities (+14)

At least one Egyptian police officer has been killed in a shootout with unspecified hostiles in downtown Cairo. This story still appears to be developing, but Egyptian security officials said that the “suspects were planning to carry out terrorist acts” without specifying who they were or what they were planning to attack. The alleged would-be terrorists were also reportedly killed in the gun battle.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • 5369 confirmed cases (+435)

  • 73 reported fatalities (+8)

Researcher Kevin Schwartz says that the Saudis and their allies are using the pandemic to shore up reactionary forces across North Africa:

The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a brief pause to the recent wave of popular movements challenging decades of inept and unaccountable rule across the greater Middle East, but when the protests return they will likely be met by an increasingly emboldened counter movement: the destabilizing — and sometimes coordinated — external influence campaigns being spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.

Having successfully weathered the Arab Spring nearly a decade ago, these three countries have now doubled-down on a counter-revolutionary strategy not limited just to aggressively snuffing out any flicker of dissent at home, but also shaping conditions elsewhere. As regional governments increasingly use the coronavirus to curb personal freedoms, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are likely to encourage and support such behaviors after the current crisis ends, especially if their recent practices are anything to go by.

In places like Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, and Libya, the three countries have sought to stymie citizen uprisings, meddle in elections, arm allies, strengthen military rule, and wage disinformation campaigns. By cultivating conditions and supporting rulers matching a regional vision where transparency, democracy, and good governance matter little, their goal is to prevent the emergence of multiple civilian-led and democratically-minded governments for fear of what it may portend for their own rule.

IRAN

  • 74,877 confirmed cases (+1574)

  • 4683 reported fatalities (+98)

I’m not sure what’s actually happening here but Reuters reported earlier in the day that “armed men” had boarded a ship off the Iranian coast in the Gulf of Oman. They later apparently released it. No other details (like who the armed men were, what kind of vessel it is, where it is going, or why they boarded it) have yet been reported. Given the state of tensions in the Persian Gulf area I figured it was worth mentioning even without any other information. The obvious guess is that the armed boarders were Iranian naval personnel, but that’s speculative and again there’s not even enough information to make a guess as to their motive.

ASIA

SINGAPORE

  • 3252 confirmed cases (+334)

  • 10 reported fatalities (+1)

Singapore’s government began mandating masks in public on Tuesday in an effort to get a handle on that country’s suddenly burgeoning COVID-19 outbreak. The sharp recent rise in the number of coronavirus cases has led authorities to suspect that there are more COVID-19 carriers in Singapore than previously believed, perhaps many of them asymptomatic.

CHINA

  • 82,295 confirmed cases (+46) on the mainland, 1013 confirmed cases (+3) in Hong Kong

  • 3342 reported fatalities (+1) on the mainland, 4 reported fatalities (unchanged) in Hong Kong

China’s efforts to spin the COVID-19 pandemic into a soft power bonanza doesn’t appear to be going very well, at least not in the West:

The wave of skepticism, sometimes from nations friendly toward China, underscores the size of the challenge facing foreign policymakers in Beijing as they look toward the post-pandemic global landscape. While governments from Washington to Brussels have been faulted for mismanaging the crisis or failing to galvanize an international response, China’s standing has taken a hit precisely at a moment when the country was positioning itself as an up-and-coming leader in world affairs.

“They know when the dust settles and people turn their eye toward whether Beijing was responsible, it’s going to be a very difficult situation,” said Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, who described China’s globe-spanning, hard-sell campaign in recent weeks as public relations “on steroids.”

“They’re trying to get ahead of that narrative” of blame, Rolland added. “It’s as much out of fear as it is confidence.”

A lot of the hostility is coming from far right governments and political leaders who are inclined to oppose China anyway and will look for any excuse to undermine its international stature. But this sense of skepticism, particularly with respect to China’s initial handling of the pandemic and its declared COVID-19 stats, which are almost certainly much too low, has merged with reports about shoddy medical aid and the xenophobic mistreatment of Africans living in China to tarnish what Beijing presumably hoped would be a big coming out moment in terms of its global leadership. And that’s not even factoring in the eventual—well, in some circles it’s already happening—push to blame China for the pandemic.

According to the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, US “science diplomats” sent by Washington in 2018 to observe operations at the Wuhan Institute of Virology sent back cables warning of safety concerns, particularly around the lab’s research into bat coronaviruses. Whatever you make of the cables they are undoubtedly going to be used as evidence that the virus originated at the WIV—not deliberately, mind you, but still making it the responsibility of the Chinese government rather than a freak occurrence. That in turn will fuel more fringe theories, for example that COVID-19 is actually a manufactured bioweapon gone wrong. For what it’s worth, the US military still says it believes COVID-19 was naturally occurring, though it wants you to know it’s not completely certain about that.

NORTH KOREA

No acknowledged cases

The North Korean military carried out another round of weapons testing on Tuesday, but this one seems to have involved some relatively nonthreatening weapons. North Korean aircraft fired off air to surface missiles while shore batteries tested anti-ship cruise missiles. There’s no count on the number of missiles fired but all landed without incident in the ocean off North Korea’s eastern coast. These sorts of weapons are even less provocative than the short-range ballistic missiles and rockets the North Koreans have been testing so regularly of late, so they will likely not trigger a response from the United States, unless Donald Trump’s ratings go down or something.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 35 confirmed cases (+9)

  • 1 reported fatality (unchanged)

Forces allied with Libya’s Government of National Accord have made more progress in ousting the “Libyan National Army” from the area west of Tripoli. After capturing two coastal towns on Monday, the GNA’s forces seized another five on Tuesday, buying the Libyan capital a little breathing space but also generating a strong retaliatory artillery barrage from the LNA that mostly targeted the area around Tripoli’s Mitiga airport. There’s been no word on casualties.

MALAWI

  • 16 confirmed cases (unchanged)

  • 2 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Malawi’s government on Tuesday imposed a three week COVID-19 lockdown. Malawi was one of the last countries in southern Africa not to take this step, though aside from South Africa the region hasn’t had a large number of cases yet. They could be ahead of the curve.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

  • 3372 confirmed cases (+270)

  • 98 reported fatalities (+5)

Ukrainian officials say that a heavy rain has put out grass fires that were threatening to release radiation from Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, though so far there’s been no independent verification of that claim. The fires have been generating high background radiation and were moving toward the real hot zone around Chernobyl’s defunct nuclear reactor, which melted down in 1986. There’s been some concern that the fires might create a radioactive smoke cloud that could move toward nearby populated areas.

GERMANY

  • 132,210 confirmed cases (+2138)

  • 3495 reported fatalities (+301)

Journalist Emily Schultheis reports that while far right governments in Europe have used the pandemic to entrench themselves in power, far right opposition parties like Germany’s Alternative for Germany are struggling to gain traction as citizens rally around the people in charge:

For the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), getting near-constant attention and turning it into political momentum is not usually a problem. Through its politicians’ innate talent for provocation, their relentless focus on refugee and immigration issues, and their countless frustration-filled social media posts about government failures, the party has managed to consistently dominate headlines and hold disproportionate sway over the direction of political debate in Germany.

AfD politicians are still tweeting anti-refugee messages and still criticizing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. But in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, with more than 125,000 confirmed cases of the virus in Germany and citizens largely sequestered at home, people don’t seem to be listening the way they used to.

IRELAND

  • 11,479 confirmed cases (+832)

  • 406 reported fatalities (+41)

As expected, Ireland’s Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties concluded a bilateral coalition agreement on Tuesday that will serve as the basis for negotiations with additional parties. They’re still a combined eight seats short of a majority, so they’ll need some combination of a third party and independent support. They could probably find eight independents to sign up, but the inclusion of a third party might serve as a stabilizing influence given that these two typically rival parties have never before formed a coalition with one another.

AMERICAS

GUATEMALA

  • 167 confirmed cases (+11)

  • 5 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Guatemalan Health Minister Hugo Monroy said Tuesday that deportation flights from the US are adding to that country’s COVID-19 caseload. Monroy was apparently referring to a recent flight on which the Guatemalan government says “between 50% and 75% (of the passengers) during all their time in isolation and quarantine have come back positive” for the virus. This was a shift in rhetoric from the Guatemalan government, which had been mostly stifling itself in terms of the Trump administration’s deportation practices, presumably so as not to anger Donald Trump.

Guatemalan officials have reportedly asked the US not to deport more than 25 people on any given flight in order to facilitate screening, a request the US has graciously ignored. The US has a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala that allows it to deport migrants waiting to have their asylum claims rejected by the US government to that country. It has concluded similar deals with El Salvador and Honduras, neither of which is any “safer” than Guatemala, but the implementation of those agreements seems to have been slowed by the pandemic.

UNITED STATES

  • 613,886 confirmed cases (+26,945)

  • 26,047 reported fatalities (+6185, 3778 of which seem to be older deaths in New York that have since been classified as COVID-19 deaths)

Finally, Donald Trump is making good on his threat to eliminate US funding for the World Health Organization, because he can’t very well try to blame the WHO for his failures without doing something dramatic to make his point. In a press conference on Tuesday, Trump told reporters he’s freezing the WHO funds until “a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization's role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” Or, in other words, “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

Trump blames the WHO for being biased towards China, and while there’s room to criticize the organization for how it responded in the early stages of the pandemic, the WHO didn’t force Donald Trump to play golf for two months while he was being warned that the US needed to do more to respond to what was a budding crisis. And defunding the WHO isn’t going to help improve the situation now. Quite the contrary:

The US is the WHO’s biggest donor, with funding over $400m a year in both assessed contributions (membership fees) and donations — thought it is actually $200m in arrears.

Theoretically the White House cannot block funding of international institutions mandated by Congress. But the administration has found ways around such constitutional hurdles on other issues — by simply failing to disburse funds or apply sanctions, for example.

“It’s a bizarre decision that would be profoundly detrimental to global public health,” said Gavin Yamey, the director of Duke University’s center for policy impact in global health. “He’s trying to detract from his own errors that have led to the worst government response to Covid-19 on Earth.”

Public health officials generally agree that the WHO’s response to the pandemic has not been perfect, but much improved on the organisation’s lambasted performance in the face of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and immeasurably better than how the US has handled Covid-19.