Natural disasters pose a volatile threat to pandemic response.
As many countries move into a new phase of their coronavirus response, with some parts of society reopening as outbreaks pass their peaks, the weeks of stringent lockdowns appeared to have paid off.
But some of the hard-won successes may be threatened. Changes in the movement of people — brought on by natural disasters, elections and even the very measures designed to return life to normal, like the reopening of schools — could upend the gains made and run the risk of reigniting outbreaks.
A cyclone that made landfall on Wednesday on India’s coast has driven some three million people into emergency shelters in India and Bangladesh, some of which had been recommissioned in recent weeks as coronavirus quarantine areas. Some of the shelters are being filled to only half capacity in an attempt to maintain social distancing, but aid groups worry the outbreak could be exacerbated there.
Even students’ return to school has meant risking new outbreaks, and those nations restarting classes, like South Korea, are doing so with masks, plastic barriers and social distancing as part of the new normal. Some colleges have decided its simply not worth the risk, moving classes online for the coming academic year.
But some nations have yet to get the spread of the virus under control. Brazil on Tuesday reported its deadliest day since the outbreak began, and with its confirmed cases rising to more than 270,000, the country swiftly rose to third-largest outbreak in the world after the United States and Russia.
As the world inched closer to five million confirmed infections, with more than 322,000 deaths globally, it’s clear the pandemic is far from over.
Amnesty International on Wednesday slammed Singapore’s decision to sentence a man to death using a Zoom video call after the country went into lockdown because of the coronavirus outbreak, denouncing the court’s action as “cruel and inhumane.”
A spokesperson for Singapore’s Supreme Court confirmed to Amnesty that a Malaysian national received the sentence this month after his conviction on drug-trafficking charges. Reuters reported that the man, Punithan Genasan, 37, was told on Friday that he would be hanged for masterminding a 2011 heroin transaction, court documents showed.
Mr. Genasan’s lawyer, Peter Fernando, told Reuters that he did not object to the judgment being delivered on Zoom. But rights groups criticized the proceedings.
“Whether via Zoom or in person, a death sentence is always cruel and inhumane,” Amnesty International’s death penalty adviser, Chiara Sangiorgio, said in a statement. “This case is another reminder that Singapore continues to defy international law and standards by imposing the death penalty for drug trafficking, and as a mandatory punishment.”
The Singapore decision was the second known case of capital punishment being handed down by video link, according to the criminal justice watchdog group Fair Trials. The group reported that a man in Nigeria was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death earlier this month. It noted there were “grave concerns” about the fairness of such proceedings.
As the pandemic continues to decimate global air travel, airlines are going to extraordinary lengths to reassure nervous travelers that everything is being done to make flying as safe as it can be.
On a Qatar Airways flight, that means passengers will be greeted by a cabin crew not only wearing safety goggles, masks and gloves, but also donning full protective suits over their uniforms, the airline said this week.
The Doha-based airline, which flew to 150 international destinations before the pandemic, said the measures would be in place for “a number of weeks.” The airlines will also soon require passengers to wear face coverings. Social areas on planes will be closed. Large bottles of hand sanitizer will be available in the galleys.
Around the world, airlines are scrambling to keep planes from becoming coronavirus hot beds and demonstrate to customers that they are taking safety seriously.
Philippines Airlines and AirAsia also plan to use new uniforms that incorporate personal protective equipment. Other airlines have ramped up cleaning, kept middle seats on planes empty and retooled boarding procedures. Some flight hubs, like Hong Kong International Airport, are using temperature checks and antimicrobial booths to disinfect people’s clothes and skin before boarding.
On Wednesday, United Airlines said it was partnering with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic to bolster its disinfection practices and hold the airline’s policies to high safety standards.
Schools and universities around the world are struggling with how best to reopen. As students in some parts of Asia return to class, many of their peers in North America and Europe remain months away from being educated together.
Even in South Korea, where most universities opened this month, not all education officials were rushing to reopen secondary schools. Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has said the reopening of schools is one of the last tests of the country’s ability to sustain a new kind of daily life under Covid-19.
In the city of Incheon, west of Seoul, for example, students from 66 high schools were turned away and told to go home on Wednesday after two seniors tested positive for the virus. They were believed to have contracted it at a karaoke parlor that had been visited by a recent patient linked to an outbreak in Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul.
But on the same day at Shinhyeon High School in Seoul, hundreds of seniors were among the nearly half-million high school students who returned to their classrooms nationwide after a monthslong absence.
Teachers at Shinhyeon greeted students by spraying their hands with sanitizer.
“I am a bit scared because we have to return to school while the epidemic with no vaccine is still out there,” Lee Na-yeon, a Shinhyeon student, told the all-news cable channel YTN. “But it feels good to see the teachers and friends again after so long.”
Cyclone Amphan slammed into India’s coast on Wednesday, knocking down huge trees, bringing ropes of rain and sending millions of poor villagers rushing into evacuation shelters.
The emergency response was complicated by the coronavirus. India and Bangladesh are still under lockdown, and many people living in swampy coastal areas of both nations were fearful of packing into crowded shelters where the chances of infection could be much higher.
Indian television channels showed images of frothy waves cresting sea walls and trees snapping into pieces. The winds blew apart some buildings, and Indian news media reported that at least one child was killed after a mud wall collapsed on him.
More than three million people in India and Bangladesh were evacuated to emergency cyclone shelters. Still, some of the shelters are only half full, because of concerns about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
The people in the storm’s path include about one million Rohingya Muslims who live in refugee camps along the Bangladeshi coastline. The recent confirmation of the first cases of Covid-19 in the camps has added another layer of anxiety and danger to relief efforts.
In a medical research project nearly unrivaled in its ambition and scope, volunteers worldwide are rolling up their sleeves to receive experimental vaccines against the coronavirus — only months after the virus was identified.
Companies like Inovio and Pfizer have begun early tests in people to determine whether their vaccine candidates are safe. Researchers at the University of Oxford in England say they could have a vaccine ready for emergency use as soon as September.
In labs around the world, there is now cautious optimism that a coronavirus vaccine, and perhaps more than one, will be ready sometime next year.
An effective vaccine will be crucial to ending the pandemic, which has sickened at least 4.8 million worldwide and killed at least 323,000. And just creating it won’t be enough: manufacturers will need to dramatically scale up production and distribution.
“What people don’t realize is that normally vaccine development takes many years, sometimes decades,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a virologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston who led the monkey trials. “And so trying to compress the whole vaccine process into 12 to 18 months is really unheard of.”
“If that happens, it will be the fastest vaccine development program ever in history.”
In other science news:
Health experts are warning that stagnant plumbing systems in emptied office buildings could pose a threat when employees return. Bacteria — including the type that causes the respiratory condition Legionnaires’ disease — can build up if not properly addressed.
Brazil’s government on Wednesday encouraged doctors in the public health care system to treat coronavirus patients with hydroxychloroquine — a move the country’s two recently departed health ministers refused to sign off on because the drug can cause dangerous side effects.
In written guidance, the ministry encouraged medical professionals to administer the anti-malaria drug to treat patients with Covid-19 regardless of the severity of their symptoms. The guidance was issued five days after health minister Nelson Teich resigned, having lasted less than a month on the job.
Mr. Teich’s predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, was fired in April after clashing with President Jair Bolsonaro over the president’s disdain for social distancing measures and his enthusiastic endorsement of hydroxychloroquine.
Over the weekend, Mr. Mandetta warned that several Covid-19 patients who took hydroxychloroquine developed dangerous heart conditions. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning in April limiting the use of the drug to hospitalized patients in clinical trials who can be closely monitored for heart irregularities.
Mr. Bolsonaro and President Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine has confounded medical experts who noted that the drug has shown no real benefit for hospitalized coronavirus patients. The controversy intensified Monday when Mr. Trump said that he had begun taking the drug daily as a preventive measure, a move several doctors called irresponsible, citing the potential side effects.
Mr. Bolsonaro has yet to appoint a new health minister. The ministry is being run by General Eduardo Pazuello, an active duty Army commander with no medical experience. Gen. Pazuello has appointed several military officials to senior roles at the ministry to replace health experts who have left in recent days.
Hotels in Greece, where tourism accounts for at least 25 percent of gross domestic product, are scheduled to open by June 15, and some international flights are to restart on July 1. Anyone arriving from abroad is currently required to go through a two-week quarantine upon arrival even if a diagnostic test is negative, a measure that has been extended until May 31.
He added that if the country did not impose quarantine on British tourists, Greece would like its citizens to also be exempt from the quarantine that Britain is set to impose on arriving passengers starting early next month. Grant Shapps, the British transport minister, said this week that the government was considering the creation of “air bridges” between Britain and low-risk countries.
Spain, which is also financially dependent on tourism, is expected to open its borders to tourists in late June, while Portugal plans to reopen its beaches on June 6, though social distancing measures will be in place.
Every summer since the end of World War II, Japan’s top high school baseball teams have come together in a tournament that rivets the nation. It’s the Japanese version of March Madness for American college basketball, an amateur sporting event that, for a few weeks every year, becomes almost inescapable.
Except this year. The tournament — known as the Koshien after the stadium where it is held — has been canceled, its organizers said Wednesday, making it the latest sporting event to be felled by the coronavirus.
It is only the third time since the event began in 1915 that it has been called off, but the decision seemed inevitable: Japan decided in March to postpone the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for late July and early August, to the summer of 2021.
But organizers of the baseball tournament — a much smaller event — held off on a final decision until this week, hoping the pandemic would recede enough that the 49 top teams from across Japan could play ball.
There was reason for hope: Japan has managed to keep the coronavirus largely in check, with fewer than 800 deaths nationwide as of Tuesday. But the pandemic has caused major disruptions in daily life, with schools closed and parts of the country under a state of emergency.
Speaking at a news conference, Masataka Watanabe, president of the daily Asahi Shimbun, which organizes the tournament, said he had delayed the decision for as long as possible hoping to “be able to somehow create an opportunity for a game that could be a send off for students heading into their last summer in high school.”
Tom Moore, the 100-year-old former British army officer who raised $40 million for Britain’s National Health Service by walking 100 laps in his yard, is set to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, an honor that completes his transformation from media sensation into national hero.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson recommended him for the knighthood.
“Colonel Tom’s fantastic fund-raising broke records, inspired the whole country and provided us all with a beacon of light through the fog of coronavirus,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement. “On behalf of everyone who has been moved by his incredible story, I want to say a huge thank you.”
Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, Mr. Moore said he was honored by the recognition.
“I certainly feel that I’ve been given a very outstanding honor by the queen and the prime minister,” he said. “And I thank them all very much. I am certainly delighted.”
He said he was looking forward to meeting the queen but added, “I hope she’s not very heavy handed with the sword. By then I might be rather a poor old weak soul.”
Mr. Moore’s campaign, which he began a few weeks before his 100th birthday, caught fire after it was posted on an online charity service. It became a hugely popular good-news story in a country especially hard-hit by the pandemic.
Mr. Moore, who served as a captain during the Burma campaign in World War II, said in an earlier interview that he wanted to recognize those on the front line, “just as we were backed up” during World War II.
The campaign to replace Burundi’s long-reigning president has been marred by arrests and alleged killings of political opponents. But during a time of a pandemic, it has also featured rallies in packed stadiums.
Burundi’s citizens will on Wednesday elect a successor to President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader who has ruled the country with impunity for the last 15 years, evading international efforts to call him to account for human rights abuses.
More than five million people were expected to vote at about 1,500 polling stations, and experts said that it could be the first competitive election since a civil war that began in 1993 and ended in 2005.
But the risk of contracting the coronavirus adds a critical dimension. From the outbreak’s onset, the authorities cited divine protection for keeping the country open and for holding large rallies.
And even after reporting 42 positive cases and one death, officials have continued to insist that the virus would not affect the country as severely as it has others worldwide.
Taiwan, which sits just 100 miles off China’s coast and has a population of more than 23 million, has recorded only 440 coronavirus cases and seven deaths. Its first case was reported on Jan. 21, the same day as the first American case.
In a statement, the U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, praised Ms. Tsai for her leadership, including Taiwan’s response to the virus.
“Her courage and vision in leading Taiwan’s vibrant democracy is an inspiration to the region and the world,” he said, adding that the outbreak had “provided an opportunity for the international community to see why Taiwan’s pandemic-response model is worthy of emulation.”
“Taiwan separatist forces and their actions are contrary to national justice and will surely be nailed to the column of shame in history,” the Chinese Defense Ministry said in a statement. The ministry warned that China would take “all necessary measures” to safeguard its sovereignty.
During her speech, Ms. Tsai praised the Taiwanese people and health officials, many of whom were in attendance, for successfully facing the pandemic. “In recent months, Taiwan’s name has appeared in headlines around the world, thanks to our successful containment of the coronavirus outbreak,” she said.
Across Indonesia, malls and shopping streets are packed with people seemingly oblivious to the idea of social distancing.
Keeping with tradition, they have been shopping for new clothes to look their best on Indonesia’s most important holiday, Eid al-Fitr, which falls on Sunday. Many are wearing face masks, but others are not.
In Jakarta, the capital, crowds of shoppers swarmed the streets this week around the huge Tanah Abang market. The venue itself was closed to prevent the spread of the virus, and a banner read: “Stay home, Corona is destroyed. Leave home, Corona reigns.” But vendors had filled streets around it with stalls selling head scarves, long, flowing skirts and men’s shirts and trousers.
In the neighboring city of Bogor, where shopping streets were also crowded, officials complained that some shoppers were using government coronavirus aid to buy new holiday clothes, local news outlets reported.
President Joko Widodo, who reluctantly imposed nationwide restrictions, including barring people from returning to their home villages for the holiday, has more recently called for learning to coexist with the virus.
But in Jakarta, which has a third of the nation’s cases, the governor, Anies Baswedan, extended pandemic restrictions from Friday until June 4. He urged the public to stay home and avoid large gatherings, calling the next two weeks “a defining moment.”
At least three empty seats separated every occupied one in the neo-Baroque State Theater of Hesse in Wiesbaden, Germany. An auditorium that normally holds 1,000 accommodated fewer than 200 on Monday.
This was by design, part of a hotly debated and potentially risky attempt to revive live performance as the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic ebbs in Europe. Wiesbaden’s concert could serve as a model for other theaters — or as a warning, if anyone who attended gets sick.
Günther Groissböck, an Austrian bass, stepped in front of the sparse audience on Monday, and while he understood the social-distancing rationale for the empty seats, it still felt strange, he said in an interview following his performance of works by Schubert and Mahler.
“At the beginning it felt almost like an art installation, an experiment,” he said. “But from song to song, it very quickly became something very human.”
Concertgoers were required to wear face coverings to the theater, though they were allowed to remove them once seated. Tickets came without seat assignments, and members of a household could sit together. The theater recorded everyone’s name and address, so they could be contacted later in case someone turned out to be infected.
President Trump said on Wednesday that he may try to convene world leaders at Camp David for the annual Group of 7 meeting, as a further sign of “normalization” as the United States and many other countries begin to reopen.
“Now that our Country is ‘Transitioning back to Greatness’, I am considering rescheduling the G-7, on the same or similar date, in Washington, D.C., at the legendary Camp David,” Mr. Trump wrote in a Twitter post. “The other members are also beginning their COMEBACK. It would be a great sign to all – normalization!”
Mr. Trump agreed to hold the summit at his presidential retreat in Maryland after initially saying the gathering would happen at the Trump National Doral resort near Miami. Critics said it was inappropriate for him to host a diplomatic event at one of his properties.
It is unclear whether Mr. Trump has discussed the idea with other G7 leaders and how willing they may be to travel abroad with the large staff and security entourages they require.
After the virus struck, the G7 agreed to hold the gathering by video for the first time. It is scheduled for June 10-12. The group is made up of the United States, Germany, Japan, France, Britain, Canada, and Italy.
Vivian Wang is a China correspondent whose reporting explores how China’s global rise is reshaping the lives of its people. She lives in Hong Kong, where she also covers the territory’s evolving relationship with the mainland.
Two blocks from my apartment on the western edge of Hong Kong Island, a Starbucks has been transformed into what looks like a construction zone, or maybe a strange art installation.
An armchair near the window was cordoned off for a time with masking tape, and more strips stretched over and around other chairs nearby, taut like tightropes over their neighboring tabletops. Rectangles of white cardboard are clipped to the sides of tables, which now look more like office cubicles than places to gather with friends.
But if the customers are fazed by the oddness of their surroundings, they don’t show it.
On a recent Tuesday night, a young couple huddled at one of the tape-free tables, laughing at something on the girl’s phone. A man hunched over his laptop, seemingly oblivious to the silos shielding him from his fellow patrons.
Hong Kong was one of the first places outside mainland China to be hit by the coronavirus, and the landscape of the city changed immediately.
There were temperature checks at every public building, and signs in elevators telling you how often the buttons were sanitized. A pharmacy chain handed out fistfuls of stickers with every purchase, featuring the chain’s mascot — a winking orange cat — and a reminder: “Wash your hands! Rub your hands! 20 seconds, Thx.”
Everywhere, there were reminders that these were not normal times.
Four months later, those signs are still around. But the city is humming back to life.
Reporting was contributed by Ernesto Londoño, Carl Zimmer, Knvul Sheikh, Noah Weiland, Michael Crowley, Mihir Zaveri, Karen Zraick, Ben Dooley, Jennifer Jett, Hannah Beech, Iliana Magra, Jack Ewing, Abdi Latif Dahir, Raphael Minder, Megan Specia, Yonette Joseph, Tariro Mzezewa, Mark Landler, Richard C. Paddock, Dera Menra Sijabat, Lou Stoppard, Choe Sang-Hun, Mike Ives, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Richard Pérez-Peña, Donald G. McNeil Jr., Sarah Mervosh, Mike Baker, Steven Erlanger, Chris Horton, Vivian Wang, Stephen Castle, Sameer Yasir and Jeffrey Gettleman. Claire Fu contributed research.