City as lab
The epicenter of Germany’s coronavirus outbreak is going to become an open-air laboratory to help scientists determine how the germ is transmitted in daily life and which lockdown measures can be safely lifted without fueling its spread. Heinsberg, a district of 250,000 near the Dutch border, is Germany’s worst-hit location, with more than 1,280 confirmed infections and at least 34 deaths. The new study will track the movements and symptoms of 1,000 residents, chosen to represent a cross-section of the German population. The researchers will examine how the virus spreads—or doesn’t—via doorknobs, TV remotes, coffee cups, and the like. “We’ll be gathering information and practical tips as to how to deal with Covid-19,” said virologist Hendrik Streeck, “without our lives having to come to a standstill.”
AMLO still shaking hands
La Tuna, Mexico
Flouting social-distancing rules, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador this week visited the elderly mother of his country’s most infamous drug trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and shook her hand. Footage shows López Obrador chatting with El Chapo’s 92-year-old mother, María Consuelo Loera Pérez, as she sits in her car. The president said he visited her because she had sent him a letter asking for help in getting permission to visit El Chapo, who is serving life in a U.S. maximum-security prison. López Obrador said it would have been “disrespectful” not to shake her hand, even though two governors he recently met with have tested positive for Covid-19.
How many have died?
The true death toll from Italy’s coronavirus outbreak may be far higher than the 13,200 fatalities recorded by authorities so far. In the northern town of Nembro, only 31 deaths have been officially attributed to Covid-19 from January through March, Nembro Mayor Claudio Cancelli and medical entrepreneur Luca Foresti wrote in the Corriere della Sera this week. But, the pair noted, in those three months 158 deaths were recorded overall, more than four times the total for the same period last year. Italian officials say it’s plausible that Covid-19 deaths are being underestimated in official reports, because government data does not include people who died at home or in nursing homes, or all those who may have been infected but were not tested for the virus.
U.S. makes offer
The Trump administration announced this week that it was prepared to lift its crippling sanctions on Venezuela if both President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó were to step aside and cede power to an interim governing council. Maduro’s regime is facing a string of unprecedented threats: A spat between Saudi Arabia and Russia over oil production has tanked global crude prices—robbing Venezuela of its main source of income—and the coronavirus crisis is threatening to overwhelm the country’s already decrepit health system. But regional experts said Maduro and his cronies are unlikely to give up power until they receive protection from the U.S. justice system; Attorney General William Barr last week charged the autocrat with narcoterrorism and money laundering.
Hungary’s parliament this week voted to grant authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree until his government decides that the coronavirus pandemic is over. The law, passed almost entirely by votes from Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party, also allows authorities to jail for up to five years anyone they determine to be spreading misinformation—a provision critics fear will be used to punish Orban’s opponents in parliament and the independent media. “Changing our lives is now unavoidable,” said Orban. “This law gives the government the power and means to defend Hungary.” European Union officials said such anti-democratic measures were incompatible with Hungary’s membership in the bloc. The EU opened an investigation into Hungary’s authoritarian drift in 2018, but has yet to impose any penalty.
Presidential health hazard
State governors in Brazil this week were defying President Jair Bolsonaro’s demands that they rescind their coronavirus lockdowns and immediately restart the country’s ailing economy. The far-right president called governors of hard-hit states “job killers” and said their restrictions on movement and commerce could result in social chaos. Brazil had registered some 6,000 Covid-19 cases by midweek and at least 206 deaths, but Bolsonaro has ignored his own health minister’s call for social distancing and continues to encourage people to mingle, shop, and go to church as usual. In a manifesto published in the daily Folha de São Paulo, opposition leaders declared Bolsonaro “a public health problem” and urged him to resign.
U.S. captive believed dead
Robert Levinson, an ex–FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007 while on a rogue CIA mission, is likely dead, the U.S. government announced last week. “The most credible evidence we have collected over the past 13 years points to the likelihood that Bob died in captivity,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said. Levinson had been contracted by CIA agents to gather intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program; the assignment was not authorized by CIA leaders. Levinson, who would have turned 72 in March, was last seen alive in a 2010 hostage video pleading for his life. Iran says he was captured by terrorists and left the country years ago. Three other Americans are being held in Iran, including Michael White, a Navy veteran who has been admitted to a Tehran hospital with Covid-19 symptoms.
Kenya’s rollout last week of a dusk-to-dawn curfew meant to limit social interaction began with an explosion of police brutality, with officers beating people up and spraying tear gas at peaceful civilians. Videos taken in cities across the country show scenes of police violence that may have spread the coronavirus, as officers corralled hundreds of people into enclosures for detention. A 13-year-old boy, Yasin Hussein, was shot dead by police as he played on his balcony in Nairobi 20 minutes after the curfew went into effect. In Mombasa, commuters waiting for a ferry home an hour before curfew were attacked by police. “You could see the fury in them as they asked us to lie down on the ground,” said Ahmed Swaleh Hassan. “And then they started beating us.” Countries across Africa have imposed shelter-in-place orders as Covid-19 cases are discovered; Kenya has identified more than 80 cases.
The three-week coronavirus lockdown ordered by India’s government has triggered a mass exodus of migrant laborers from cities to their home villages, where they won’t have to pay rent. Workers thronged bus and train stations, and those who failed to catch the last rides are walking hundreds of miles. “The exodus of migrants may have spread out the virus far and wide, adding another layer to India’s problems,” said health analyst Oommen Kurian. By the end of March, India had identified about 1,400 Covid-19 cases. Authorities are trying to track down some 2,000 people who attended a Muslim missionary conference in New Delhi in mid-March; dozens of attendees have since tested positive for Covid-19, and at least seven have died.
In the month before the Tokyo Olympics were canceled, Japan reported a very low and steady rate of coronavirus infections and implemented no major lockdowns. But after the postponement of the 2020 Summer Games was announced last week, shelter-in-place recommendations were quickly issued in Tokyo and a neighboring prefecture. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the shutdown was needed because new infections had rocketed to 41 in a day from 16 a few days earlier. Several days later, Tokyo recorded 63 new cases. Critics claimed that authorities suppressed testing before the Games were delayed, to make the outbreak seem less serious. “It was Olympics first, not Tokyo’s residents,” tweeted former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said there is “absolutely no relationship” between the Olympic announcement and the uptick in confirmed cases.
Outbreak at sea
The captain of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt told Navy command this week that “decisive action is required now” to contain the spread of the coronavirus among his crew and “prevent tragic outcomes.” More than 70 members of the 4,000-person crew have tested positive, and Capt. Brett Crozier wrote in his urgent memo that “the spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating” because social isolation is impossible in the vessel’s cramped quarters. He asked that 90 percent of the crew be removed and quarantined, with the rest remaining on board to sanitize the ship, ensure security, and maintain the reactor. “We are not at war,” Crozier said. “Sailors do not need to die.” Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the Navy has been working to get the infected sailors off the ship but is struggling to find sufficient housing on Guam.
Death toll higher
As China begins easing the two-month lockdown of Wuhan—where the coronavirus first erupted—residents are increasingly skeptical of the Communist Party’s claim that only 2,500 people in the city have died of Covid-19. With families finally allowed outdoors to collect the ashes of their loved ones, residents estimate that Wuhan’s seven funeral homes have been handing out a total of 3,500 urns every day. One resident told Radio Free Asia that most people in the city now believe that more than 40,000 locals died in the outbreak. “During the epidemic, they transferred cremation workers from around China to Wuhan,” said resident Chen Yaohui, so they could “keep cremating bodies around the clock.”
Levinson family, AP (2), Getty ■