By Siobhán O’Grady, Teo Armus, Rick Noack, Jennifer Hassan, Alex Horton, Washington Post–
As coronavirus quarantines and lockdowns force much of the United States and Europe to hunker down and millions of workers face pay disruptions, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic took dramatic new steps to try to reassure worried households and investors. Still, Asian markets fell sharply on Thursday, and U.S. markets were poised to drop, as well.
- The virus continued to spread globally, with Italy announcing a record number of deaths on Wednesday and Spain reporting a similarly alarming death-toll spike on Thursday. But new numbers out of China may offer a glimmer of hope: The country reported no new locally transmitted cases the previous day for the first time since the outbreak began late last year.
- The European Union’s top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, 69, said Thursday that he has tested positive for the virus. On Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) both announced positive tests; they are the first confirmed cases in Congress.
- As confirmed world cases top 200,000, Australia and New Zealand closed their borders to everyone except citizens and residents. United Arab Emirates went one further to even stop expatriate residents outside the country from returning.
- The European Central Bank announced an $820 billion emergency bond-buying program as President Trump and congressional leaders planned a $1 trillion stimulus package, including special assistance for small businesses and airlines. Trump also signed into a law a bill to ensure paid leave benefits for many Americans.
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6:48 AM: European Union’s top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says he tested positive for coronavirus
BRUSSELS — The European Union’s top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, 69, said Thursday that he had tested positive for coronavirus.
On his verified Twitter account, Barnier posted a video, accompanied by a tweet that read: “I am doing well and in good spirits. I am following all the necessary instructions, as is my team.”
“For all those affected already, and for all those currently in isolation, we will get through this together,” he wrote. In the video, Barnier said everyone has a role to play in winning what he called a “war” against coronavirus.
Barnier’s public profile grew widely over the last years, as he led the European Union’s negotiations with the British government over the country’s terms of exiting the bloc. Described by some as “the Brussels equivalent of a rock star,” the French citizen was expected to continue to lead the negotiations over future trading arrangements between the E.U. and Britain.
Talks on the post-Brexit deal were supposed to be held this week but were canceled because of the coronavirus crisis.
British and European negotiators will still review their own post-Brexit draft deal in the coming weeks. Around 200 people are working on those trade talks. A British spokesman said Wednesday evening negotiators “will now analyze each other’s texts and we expect further conversations between the teams next week.”
By: Quentin Aries and Rick Noack
6:27 AM: Army used to put Jordan’s capital, Amman, on lockdown
Jordan sealed off its capital Amman from the rest of the country on Thursday, sending in the military to close off the main entrances to the sprawling city as the country tries to slow the spread of coronavirus, according to media reports.
The Xinhua News Agency said that Jordanian armed forces set up checkpoints around the city of more than 3 million, as the number of cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, rose to 56. Only authorized personnel will be allowed to enter the capital, the state-run Petra news agency reported.
According to the report, Jordan’s Tourism Ministry had put into quarantine some 5,000 tourists currently in the country, 1,900 of them in Dead Sea hotels, the rest in Amman.
On Tuesday, King Abdullah issued a royal decree giving the government powers to enforce a state of emergency to fight the pandemic, Al Jazeera reported. The measures allow Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz to impose curfews, close businesses and place restrictions on freedom of movement of the people, the report said.
By: Ruth Eglash
6:25 AM: State visit to Britain by the emperor and empress of Japan postponed
LONDON — Buckingham Palace confirmed Thursday that the state visit by the Emperor Naruhito of Japan had been postponed and would be rescheduled at a later date.
Earlier this week, the royal family also announced several changes to Queen Elizabeth II’s calendar of events, noting that some would be canceled or postponed, including a string of garden parties planned to take place at Buckingham Palace and this year’s Maundy service in April.
The decision comes as the queen’s granddaughter, Princess Beatrice, who is due to be married in May, is said to be reviewing her current wedding plans. The BBC reported on Wednesday that the reception, which was slated to take place at the palace and hosted by the queen, has been canceled.
On Thursday, the queen, who is 93, will be relocated to Windsor Castle, around 20 miles away from her official London residence. She is expected to stay there until after the Easter period.
Taking to Instagram, the queen’s grandchildren, Meghan and Harry, shared a message of hope amid the current coronavirus outbreak. “This moment is as true a testament there is to the human spirit,” the post read along with a lengthy caption that noted: “These are uncertain times. And now, more than ever, we need each other.”
The White House announced Wednesday that an April 21 state dinner for the Spanish royals, King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, had also been postponed.
By: Jennifer Hassan
6:06 AM: Italy to extend lockdown as death toll mounts
Italy will extend lockdown measures implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as the death toll mounts and the country continues to grapple with new cases.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the government has no choice but to prolong the current restrictions, which prevent tens of millions of people from traveling within the country for any non-urgent reasons. The extensions would also apply to schools and universities that have shut down, he reportedly said.
The lockdown has been in place since Mar. 9.
Italy has pressed charges against around 40,000 people for violating the terms of the lockdown, the Guardian reported this week.
On Wednesday, the country recorded 475 deaths linked to the virus — its highest death toll since the crisis began.
By: Siobhán O’Grady
4:58 AM: London Underground discourages people from using subway services
LONDON — The London Underground took further steps Thursday to discourage people from using the subway service amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
Forty stations across the capital have been closed and bus services will also be reduced.
“It is critical that public transport in London is only used for absolutely essential journeys. Please don’t travel for any other reason,” Heidi Alexander, the deputy mayor for transport, tweeted.
On Wednesday, one Twitter user shared a photo of an overcrowded platform as commuters stood in proximity to one another as they waited for the train.
“Social distancing? This morning’s commute on the Victoria line. Perhaps some clearer guidance from the government would help,” the tweet read.
While many companies have asked employees to work from home, people have still been going about their daily lives as normal in the capital. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been widely scrutinized for his handling of the outbreak, with critics saying his advice has not been clear enough.
On Wednesday, Johnson announced that schools, colleges and nurseries across Britain would close on Friday — a move critics say should have happened long ago. So far, the country has 2,644 confirmed cases of the virus and 71 deaths.
By: Jennifer Hassan
4:42 AM: Russia reports its first coronavirus death, as testing ramps up
MOSCOW — Russia reported its first coronavirus death on Thursday, a 79-year-old woman who died in an isolation ward in Moscow’s Infectious Diseases Hospital Number 2.
No information was available on whether she or members of her family had traveled recently. The woman became ill last week Friday.
Russia has carried out 133,000 tests for coronavirus, the Russian Service for Health and Consumer Rights said Thursday and more than 22,000 people are currently under observation for possible indications of the disease. Since January, nearly 63,000 people have been placed under observation.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said Russia had produced 700,000 test kits and has an adequate number ventilators.
Russian authorities have reported 147 cases of the virus. Staff in the Kremlin have been tested as part of measures to protect President Vladimir Putin.
By: Robyn Dixon
4:36 AM: Mexico announces first death, but few containment measures
Mexico reported its first death from the novel coronavirus late on Wednesday, a troubling sign for health experts who worry the country has not done nearly enough to contain the outbreak.
The victim, a 41-year-old man with diabetes, had been hospitalized for over a week — though not before he attended a massive concert by a Swedish rock band earlier this month, according to El Universal newspaper.
Still, reports of his case did not keep more than 10,000 people from jamming out to Guns and Roses over the weekend at a multiday music festival that Mexico City’s mayor repeatedly refused to shut down.
As nearby countries impose strict travel restrictions and massive shutdowns, public health experts in Mexico worry that relatively scant containment measures could lead to a massive outbreak down the road.
As Trump said Wednesday he would ban nonessential travel across the U.S.-Mexico border and block migrants from crossing illegally, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has closed schools but refused to restrict travel or shut down businesses.
Earlier this week, Mexican officials clashed with the president of El Salvador, who claimed a plane traveling there from Mexico was carrying a dozen passengers who had allegedly positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
López Obrador himself has largely ignored any suggestion of social distancing, too. He spent the weekend on his regular routine walking through throngs of supporters in the countryside, at one point kissing babies on the cheek.
Two days later, Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s deputy health minister, said the president should contract the virus because he would “spontaneously recover” and become immune.
“The president’s strength is moral. It is not a force of contagion,” López-Gatell said.
By: Teo Armus
4:15 AM: UAE to ban resident expatriates from returning for two weeks
DUBAI — The United Arab Emirates announced that foreign residents currently outside the country will not be allowed back in for at least two weeks starting Thursday, adding that the period could also be renewed.
Emirati citizens have also been banned from traveling abroad and all visas on arrival for qualifying countries have been suspended. Visas that have already been issued have also been suspended, along with new labor permits for drivers and domestic workers until further notice.
While a host of countries have closed their borders to non-citizens, most recently Australia and New Zealand, the move by the UAE is particularly striking since more than 85 percent of the population are non-citizen residents — many of whom were born in the UAE or have lived there most of their lives.
“The development comes as a precautionary measure to ensure the safety of those affected by the decision, which is subject to renewals depending on the health status measures taken due to the novel coronavirus outbreak,” said the statement from the Foreign Ministry.
Expatriates abroad were urged to get in touch with their closest UAE Embassy to see about returning. UAE’s Education Ministry closed schools early and moved back spring break, prompting some families to go abroad in mid-March.
Attorney General Hamad Al Shamsi also announced late Wednesday that all arrivals to the country would have to undergo 14 days of home quarantine.
While UAE was the first country in the Middle East to report a virus case — Chinese tourists from Wuhan, the city where the outbreak emerged late last year — growth has been slow, with only 113 cases and extensive testing around the country.
Outside of Iran, where there are more than 17,000 cases, the Persian Gulf region has 1,227 cases, with Saudi Arabia reporting 67 new cases Wednesday, bringing its total to 238.
By: Paul Schemm
4:15 AM: Israeli authorities send text message warnings those who may have been exposed to virus
JERUSALEM — Israel’s Heath Ministry on Wednesday night sent out the first batch of 400 text messages to people who were identified by their cellphone data as coming into contact, wittingly or unwittingly, with a person infected with the coronavirus.
People with confirmed cases of the virus were also sent messages informing them that their cellphone data was being used to warn others who may have been exposed to them.
The emergency tracking measures, used by the police and Israel’s Security Agency to catch criminals and terrorists, were controversially approved in the early hours of Tuesday morning in a telephone vote by the government.
The Health Ministry published out a sample text message, which informs the recipient they either tested positive for the virus or came in close contact with someone who did, and orders them to self-quarantine. Individuals who are identified as having been in proximity to someone diagnosed with the virus will also be informed through the text of which day the contact occurred.
“According to an epidemiological investigation, you were on [== / == / ==] next to a Corona patient,” reads the text sent out. “You must immediately go into isolation until [== / == / ==] to protect your relatives and the public.”
Opposition leaders who have been trying to revive Israel’s parliament after a year of political limbo, protested the move saying the government was acting with no oversight at a time of crisis.
Civil rights groups filed a legal petition against the measure saying it violated human rights and demanding the process be stopped immediately.
Speaking on a local radio station Thursday, Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan dismissed concerns that authorities would use the information for anything other than to warn those who might be infected.
By: Ruth Eglash
4:05 AM: Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido lifts coronavirus state of emergency
TOKYO — Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido said Thursday it would lift its state of emergency over the coronavirus at midnight, after bringing infections under control and following criticism that the economic costs of a further shutdown would outweigh the benefits.
“There was no surge of infected patients that led to a collapse of the medical environment,” Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki told a news conference, according to Kyodo News. “We’re now able to battle [the virus], as we’ve strengthened the test capability and bed capacity in hospitals.”
The relatively sparsely populated island of Hokkaido has 154 out of Japan’s 923 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the highest of any prefecture. The governor declared a state of emergency from Feb. 28, asked schools to close and requested residents to remain indoors for a time.
But there were complaints about the economic costs of the measures, including on restaurants, according to a survey by a federation of small and midsize companies.
“Not only has the number of tourists decreased but local customers as well,” one company complained in the report, according to Kyodo. “There could be companies that go bankrupt.”
Suzuki said the government aims to move to a “new stage,” where it continues to contain the virus while aiming for a recovery in social and economic activities, according to the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper. He said people should still avoid mass gatherings.
By: Simon Denyer
3:31 AM: Australia, New Zealand ban entry to non-citizens, non-residents
Leaders in Australia and New Zealand said they will shut their borders to nearly all foreigners, as both countries try to contain the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent economic fallout.
The sweeping measures, which go into effect Friday night, mark another instance of how the global pandemic has prompted a nearly unprecedented clampdown on international travel.
The orders do not apply to citizens or residents of either country and their families, but will keep some foreign visa holders from entering. Australia and New Zealand were both already requiring travelers coming from abroad to quarantine themselves for two weeks.
Yet Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that with most covid-19 cases being imported from overseas, more extreme measures were necessary to keep the virus out.
On Thursday, the Reserve Bank of Australia also cut interest rates to a record-low 0.25%, a move aimed at warding off what would be the country’s first recession in almost three decades. Australia’s benchmark stock index sank to a new four-year low on Thursday.
The central bank will also buy government bonds for its first-ever quantitative easing program, and Morrison said he was working to roll out a second economic relief package. A stimulus plan he announced last week included spending initiatives and payments to low-income individuals and small businesses.
Announcing similar measures in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the potential risks of the outbreak justify “extraordinary” steps.
“At no time in New Zealand’s history has a power like this been used,” she said. “But we have to make decisions in best interests of the health of those who live here.”
By: Teo Armus
2:53 AM: Hedge-fund manager apologizes after video shows him wiping saliva on Hong Kong train handrail
HONG KONG — A man filmed licking his finger and touching a handrail on a Hong Kong subway train publicly apologized on Thursday, after the footage circulated widely online and featured prominently in local media.
“I made light of the covid-19 situation in a parody video that was only intended for a handful of friends,” Joel Werner, who Reuters identified as a hedge fund manager, wrote in a post on Facebook. “But I now realize that I shouldn’t have done that. A global pandemic is no laughing matter.”
Werner said that he used hand sanitizer immediately before and after licking his finger, and also said he applied the gel to the part of the rail that he touched. A second clip showed appeared to show him wiping liquid on his hands and the handrail.
He also said he called Hong Kong police and subway officials “to explain the video and personally apologize for any distress caused.”
Fears have mounted in Hong Kong in recent days over a growing number of cases imported from abroad. Hong Kong has largely contained the virus, recording fewer than 200 cases since the outbreak began.
By: Siobhán O’Grady
1:30 AM: With steep jumps in cases, health officials prepare for the worst
The new coronavirus continues to infect hundreds of Americans by the day and prompts growing layoffs, forcing health workers and government officials in the United States to brace for the worst.
Doctors are making difficult decisions about daily life, cash-strapped hospitals are struggling to order ventilators, and authorities nationwide are turning to lockdowns, mass closures and bans on large gatherings as they try to “flatten the curve.”
But a chilling new U.K. study raises the question of whether it may be enough. The study, reportedly being examined by the White House’s coronavirus task force, suggested that only trying to slow the spread of the virus could nonetheless overwhelm hospital beds and lead to upwards of a million deaths in the United States.
As of late Wednesday, more than 8,700 cases had been reported across the United States, including more than 130 deaths. Two members of Congress, Reps. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), said Wednesday they had tested positive.
New York in particular announced a steep climb of 1,008 new cases since Tuesday, through Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) attributed the increase to expanded testing. The state now has more confirmed cases than all but 10 countries in the world.
Also on Wednesday, White House officials announced several measures to tighten the United States’s land borders: Authorities would immediately send migrants who cross the southern border illegally back to Mexico, they said, while closing the northern border to nonessential traffic.
The outbreak and its dramatic impact on the economy appear to be redefining Donald Trump’s presidency, with more than half of Americans saying he has downplayed the virus too much, according to a new survey.
Throughout the day on Wednesday, Trump ramped up his attempts to rebrand the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” brushing aside concerns that is unscientific and could incite racial attacks.
“It’s not racist at all,” he said Wednesday. “It comes from China, that’s why.”
By: Teo Armus
1:26 AM: European Central Bank launches $820 billion emergency bond-buying program
The European Central Bank announced emergency measures to try to deflect the massive economic downturn caused by the coronavirus, including an $820 billion emergency bond-buying program as business grinds to a halt across Europe.
“Extraordinary times require extraordinary action,” said Christine Lagarde, president of the bank. “There are no limits to our commitment to the euro. We are determined to use the full potential of our tools, within our mandate.”
The bank said the measures to try to stave off economic turmoil would continue through the “crisis phase” of the outbreak.
Policy makers globally have been stepping up their response to the economic turmoil sparked by the pandemic. With businesses shuttered across a swath of Europe and households fearful of an extended downturn, the bond-buying program aims to push down borrowing costs and calm volatile markets.
By: Siobhán O’Grady
12:35 AM: Negotiations intensify on Capitol Hill over massive stimulus legislation
The Trump administration and congressional leaders rushed on Wednesday to assemble a massive stimulus package aimed at preventing the U.S. economy from plummeting into its worst collapse since the Great Depression, as fears about the coronavirus pandemic brought much of American life to a standstill.
The administration’s $1 trillion proposed rescue plan, which forms the basis for fast-moving negotiations on Capitol Hill, includes sending two large checks to many Americans and devoting $300 billion toward helping small businesses avoid mass layoffs. Priorities laid out in a two-page Treasury Department document also include $50 billion to help rescue the airline industry and $150 billion to prop up other sectors, which could include hotels.
The White House is vetting these proposals with Senate GOP leaders before engaging more fully with Democrats, so the package is certain to evolve in coming days. Democrats, meanwhile, are eyeing their own priorities, largely aiming to shore up safety-net programs and the public health infrastructure, as well as send money directly to American taxpayers, while shunning corporate bailouts. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) proposed on Wednesday having the Federal Reserve send $2,000 to every American adult and $1,000 to every American child until the crisis ends.
Meanwhile, President Trump has signed into law a bill to ensure paid leave benefits to many Americans as part of the broader proposed stimulus.
The emerging government stimulus package could be unprecedented in its size and velocity, dwarfing the $800 billion stimulus law passed during the Obama administration and the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program enacted during the Bush administration. All told, between several legislative packages advanced on Capitol Hill and other actions the government has taken, the White House is pushing an economic plan that is “over $2 trillion and counting” to try and arrest the coronavirus’s economic wrecking ball, a senior administration officials said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal details of the planning.
By: Erica Werner, Jeff Stein and Mike DeBonis
12:33 AM: Analysis: While coronavirus ravages Iran, U.S. sanctions squeeze it
Iran has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus, and things may get far worse. On Tuesday, a state television reporter who is also a medical doctor warned that the death toll could be in the “millions” as worshipers forced their way into two Shiite shrines closed by the outbreak.
That’s not idle speculation. The death toll in Iran from covid-19 infections passed 1,000 on Wednesday after the largest single-day rise in the number of deaths since Iran’s outbreak began. Deutsche Welle reported this week that researchers at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran created a computer simulator to analyze scenarios.
Under current circumstances, the researchers said, infections would not peak until late May. The death toll could be as high as 3.5 million.
That figure might seem enough to stop anyone in their tracks. But this week, the United States announced that it would be expanding its sanctions on Iran, as well as on entities that aided the Iranian government in its trade in petrochemicals and other restricted activities. It’s a strategy that worries allies and enemies alike.
The Guardian reported on Wednesday that Britain was privately pressing the United States to ease sanctions on Iran amid the crisis, while China has publicly called on the United States to lift its Iran sanctions.
But the United States, which reimposed sanctions on Iran after President Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and other nations in 2018, has refused; on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for Iran to release U.S. citizens being held in the country “as a humanitarian gesture, given the risk that is posed” by the coronavirus pandemic.
By: Adam Taylor
12:32 AM: While the world grinds to a halt, Apple pumps out a new iPad Pro and MacBook Air
Apple on Wednesday announced two new computers and a new iPad, a test of how well it can manufacture, ship and sell products during the coronavirus outbreak.
Like companies across the United States, the consumer electronics giant has been disrupted by the virus. Its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters are in the middle of a shelter-in-place zone, it moved its June WWDC developers conference online, and it shut down its hundreds of retail stores outside of “greater China” until at least March 27.
But Apple is trying to leverage its size, power and cash reserves to continue to ship and sell products during the outbreak. Some of the new devices it announced Wednesday will be available to ship as early as next week.
Manufacturing experts say the new products were likely impacted less severely than products scheduled for release later in the year. That’s because the early stages of designing and manufacturing the product probably took place many months before the coronavirus outbreak.
Apple declined to comment.
By: Reed Albergotti and Heather Kelly
12:32 AM: GOP senator says only small percentage of population might die of coronavirus
As President Trump cast the nation’s battle against the coronavirus as war, one high-ranking Republican senator seemed to play down the gravity of the pandemic, saying the number of Americans who might die would be 3.4 percent of the population at most.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called covid-19 a “nasty disease” that is devastating to those who contract it.
“Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population . . . probably far less,” Johnson said in an interview with his home-state newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, published Wednesday. “We don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways.”
If 3.4 percent of the U.S. population perished, that would mean millions of fatalities and would be 10 times the U.S. deaths in every war that the United States has fought.
By: Colby Itkowitz