St. Patrick’s Day canceled
Ireland has canceled parades and other celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day—its single-biggest tourism draw—because of fears of spreading the coronavirus. More than half a million revelers come to Dublin each March for the multiday festivities, and the cancellation is expected to hit the city’s economy hard. So far, Ireland has only a few dozen confirmed cases, and the focus is on slowing the rate of transmission. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced an aid package of nearly $3.5 billion for health services, businesses that suffer losses, and workers in quarantine. Coronavirus patients, including the self-employed, will receive $340 a week in sick pay.
Faced with more than 10,000 coronavirus cases and a death toll above 600, the Italian government this week placed the country’s entire population of 60 million people on lockdown. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte initially announced a quarantine for the northern region of Lombardy, the epicenter of the crisis. But after news of the coming border closures caused thousands of people to flee southward, Conte extended the moratorium on travel to the whole country. Public gatherings are canceled, theaters and cinemas shuttered, and tourist attractions closed. The influx of Covid-19 patients has caused a shortage of intensive-care beds and essential equipment such as ventilators. Doctors have been told to prioritize treatment of younger patients, who are more likely to survive. Riots broke out in multiple prisons after authorities banned visitors, and at least six people were killed.
Day without women
Thousands of Mexican women withdrew from public life this week in a daylong protest to draw attention to the thousands of women who are murdered each year in Mexico. In the capital, subway cars reserved for women were nearly empty, and many businesses were sparsely staffed and lacking in customers. Femicides in Mexico have risen 137 percent over the past five years—four times more than the general homicide rate—and about 10 women are killed there every day. The strike came one day after the International Women’s Day march, which drew 80,000 people onto the streets of Mexico City. Protesters brought signs reading “Fight today so we don’t die tomorrow.”
The U.S. State Department last week raised its Haiti travel advisory to Level 4—Do Not Travel—following the kidnapping by criminal gangs of at least nine Americans and one French national in the past three months. Dozens of Haitians have also been abducted, and some killed when their relatives couldn’t muster the ransom. The gangs ask for exorbitant sums, $1 million or more, but some settle for much less after negotiation. Haitian-American Giscard Borgard said that when he was kidnapped, villagers in the slum of Village de Dieu just ignored the armed men who marched him through the streets. “Everyone knew what was happening,” said the U.S. Navy veteran, whose uncle paid his ransom. “Even the little kids, they are immune to it by now.”
War crimes fight
The Hague, Netherlands
The Trump administration denounced the International Criminal Court last week after it authorized an investigation into allegations of war crimes by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “This is a truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable political institution,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The ICC overturned a previous decision to block the investigation and will now examine alleged crimes committed by the Taliban, the Afghan government, and U.S. troops since May 2003. Prosecutors say they have evidence that U.S. interrogation techniques were used in Afghanistan— “torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape” —that amount to war crimes. The U.S. is not a member of the ICC.
Voting machines up in smoke
A fire ripped through the main warehouse for Venezuelan electoral equipment this week, incinerating some 50,000 voting machines and 600 computers. Elections for the opposition-controlled National Assembly are due later this year, a vote that could further consolidate President Nicolás Maduro’s power. Pro- and anti-Maduro groups blamed the blaze on one another. “If there are groups who think that they’re going to stop electoral processes, constitutionally established, they are very wrong,” said Tibisay Lucena, president of Maduro’s handpicked National Electoral Council. “It’s the dictatorship who must give us answers,” said Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly. “Why did they store the nation’s sensitive material in a single security zone?”
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week threw his support behind a constitutional amendment that would let him remain in power for life. The amendment—passed by the lower house of the legislature—would reset Putin’s term limit so that he could run for office two more times, keeping him in charge until 2036, when he will be 84. The measure will apply only to Putin; all subsequent presidents will be limited to two six-year terms. “When a country is going through such upheavals and such difficulties,” Putin said, “stability may be more important and must be given priority.” The package of constitutional changes will be put to a referendum in April. Russians won’t be able to protest, because mass gatherings have been prohibited to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok survived an assassination attempt this week, after unknown attackers targeted his motorcade with explosives and firearms. One security officer was wounded, and Hamdok said he was “safe and in good shape.” The attempted hit shows the precarious nature of Sudan’s transition to civilian rule. Longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir was overthrown last April following widespread protests, and in August the military and the opposition agreed to install a ruling council led by Hamdok, an economist and former United Nations official. Several unidentified people were arrested in connection with the attack, and the ruling council said it would step up its drive to remove Bashir loyalists who hold positions of power.
The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has demanded that Tehran stop blocking its investigation of three possible undeclared nuclear sites inside Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran has accelerated its production of low-enriched uranium, shrinking the “breakout time” to acquire enough fuel for a nuclear weapon to just four months. Iran ramped up enrichment a year after the U.S. unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But so far, its actions are not irreversible and may be intended to push the West to restore the sanctions-relieving deal. Ernest Moniz, who was U.S. energy secretary under Obama, says Iran has not taken serious steps such as kicking out inspectors altogether. “They are not in ‘breakout mode,’” Moniz said.
Backtracking on his earlier refusal, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani this week agreed to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a condition of the peace deal signed between the U.S. and the Taliban that left out the Afghan government but made commitments on its behalf. The prisoners will be freed in phases over many weeks, but the Taliban accused Kabul of acting in bad faith, claiming it planned to release mostly elderly or very ill prisoners. Peace appears unlikely in the short term. The Taliban launched attacks on Afghan troops last week, forcing the U.S. to respond with airstrikes on militant positions. Still, the U.S. has begun withdrawing military personnel and plans to cut troop numbers there from 13,000 to 8,600 by August.
ISIS kills Marines
Two elite U.S. Marine Raiders were killed in Iraq this week on a joint mission with Iraqi forces to root out ISIS fighters—the first combat deaths for the U.S. military in Iraq in more than six months. Capt. Moises Navas and Gunnery Sgt. Diego Pongo, both 34, were attacking a mountain hideout where ISIS militants were holed up in caves and tunnels. Three other Americans and one coalition member were wounded in the close-range firefight, and 15 to 25 ISIS militants were killed. Some analysts questioned why it took more than six hours to retrieve the Marines’ bodies, but the Pentagon said the area was “vertical” and very hard to reach. “It’s some of the worst terrain in the world,” said Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command. About 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq.
Purge of princes
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, detained four top members of the royal family on suspicion of treason this week in a bid to stamp out any opposition to his rule. The detainees include his cousin Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 60, a former crown prince, and his uncle Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, 78—who opposed MBS becoming crown prince in 2017. “This is a preparation for transferring power,” a palace source told Reuters. “It is a clear message to the family that no one can say no or dare challenge him.” If MBS, 34, takes power upon the death of his father, King Salman, 84, it will be only the second generational transfer of power since Abdulaziz ibn Saud founded the country in 1932. All kings since then have been sons of Ibn Saud. ■