DR Congo warlord Thomas ?Lubanga released from prison, first man to be convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). | Photo credit: Laura Burdon-Manley/aljazeera.com

US stocks experienced the worst plunge since 1928, Japanese flu drug Avigan might treat Covid-19, and Congolese warlord Lubanga released from prison

North America

  • American stocks have tumbled 35 per cent in the last month owing to concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic and falling oil prices. This brings the Dow Jones industrial average to 4.5 per cent below the level when US President Donald Trump took office in early 2017. Mr Trump promised stock market growth during his election campaigns. This event, the deepest plunge in prices since the Great Depression almost a century earlier, has wiped away growth from the last 3 years.
  • Following growing concerns over Covid-19, New York and Illinois followed the leads of other states and ordered citizens to stay home. The virus has infected more than 17,000 people and killed 214 in the US alone. The new measures, intended to slow the spread of the virus, have led to at least 1 in 5 Americans being ordered to stay home. Forty-five states have closed all their schools, and the five remaining states have already closed some schools.
  • Senators are beginning to work on a rescue plan that will cost a trillion dollars. The rescue plan for the economy will include aid to industries, as well as assistance to small businesses and healthcare facilities.
  • US President Donald Trump has backed the use of two drugs, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, used to cure malaria to treat the Covid-19 virus. Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, however, has clarified that while the drug is in testing, there remains no solid evidence that the drugs are useful in treating the virus.
  • US President Trump, alongside his advisors, has resisted using the Defence Production Act to force businesses to produce equipment to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. While Mr Trump did sign an executive order ordering the production of masks, he has not ordered the production of other essential equipment, such as ventilators. Mr Trump has attacked the press for sensationalism when pressed on the issue, and has come under increasing attacks by Democrats on his sluggish response.
  • US President Donald Trump has issued fresh sanctions against Iran last week by blacklisting several companies for dealing in Iranian petrochemicals. This comes amid Iranian attempts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, and leaders have criticised the Trump administration over the fresh sanctions. An Iranian official described the move as a ‘crime against humanity’. Special Representative for Iranian Affairs Brian Hook said that if Iran spent a tenth of what it spent on terrorism on healthcare instead, Iranian people would be better off.
  • Matthew Boswell, a commissioner of Canada’s Competition Bureau, announced last Friday (Mar 20) that the bureau would investigate claims of false advertising and price-fixing amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The bureau would also strengthen efforts to combat potential collusion, and encouraged anyone with information to come forward.
  • Despite interest rate drops, Canadian mortgage interest rates have increased. In an interview, Alisa Aragon, a mortgage broker, speculated that banks are strapped for cash, and as such, are unable to lower interest rates on mortgages. This comes despite announcements from the Ministry of Finance that it would launch the Insured Mortgage Purchase Program, allowing mortgage lenders to pool previously uninsured mortgages into Mortgage-backed securities for sale to the government.
  • Both Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau have announced stricter border control measures to deal with the outbreak of Covid-19. The US-Canada border has been closed to non-essential travel, and Canada will turn away migrants except from official border points.

Latin America

  • Following US President Donald Trump’s referral of the Covid-19 virus as ‘the Chinese Virus’, Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Brazil’s de facto foreign minister, tweeted last Wednesday (Mar 18) that the Covid-19 pandemic was China’s fault. The tweet drew ferocious criticism from Chinese officials as well as Beijing’s top diplomat in Brazil, Yang Wanming. The Chinese Embassy demanded the retraction of the tweet. 
  • Mexican citizens voted in a referendum last weekend to decide if the construction of a US Brewery in Mexicali should proceed. Protests have been ongoing since 2018 when the project was announced. Mexicali residents worry that the brewery will use up their dwindling water supplies to produce beer. Business leaders have cautioned against the vote, warning that a ‘no’ vote could impact investor confidence further. The vote is the latest among many referendums on projects, including on an airport in Mexico City.
  • Venezuela has requested US$1 billion (S$1.45 billion) in financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after a previous request for US$5 billion (S$7.25 billion) was rejected. The request for the funding was placed by Nicolas Maduro’s government and was rejected by the IMF on the grounds that his government was not recognised by the international community. Mr Maduro ordered a nationwide quarantine last Tuesday (Mar 17), and intends to direct IMF assistance to food and medicine purchases, as well as improving hospital infrastructure to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared a 90-day state of catastrophe last Wednesday (Mar 18), in order to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr Piñera stated that the measure will allow the armed forces to collaborate with health officials, in order to facilitate the delivery of medical supplies, transport, and to enforce quarantine orders. 
  • Chilean lawmakers have postponed a referendum on a new constitution till October, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The referendum is intended to rewrite the country’s current constitution that was created during the Pinochet era. Following the declaration of a state of catastrophe, protests have cleared, but the government’s cleanup operation of protest art and sculptures in the capital has provoked further outrage.

Asia-Pacific

  • A team in Japan has concluded a test that determined that a drug, known as Avigan, has successfully treated Covid-19 patients. The findings were confirmed by an official at China’s science and technology ministry last Tuesday (Mar 17). The flu drug has a high degree of safety and it could be approved for full-scale use as soon as May, depending on the results of further clinical research.
  • Japan and South Korea have alleged that North Korea launched at least two short-range ballistic missiles last Saturday (Mar 21). Japan’s defense minister told reporters that the missiles were launched from North Pyongan province, and flew eastward. He also suggested that North Korean leadership may be trying to tighten its grip on power amid reports of the Covid-19 virus spreading in the country.
  • South Korean Prime Minister Chung Se-Kyun has strongly recommended that religious facilities, gyms, and clubs close for the next two weeks, in order to stem the spread of the Covid-19 virus. He has also threatened damage claims against churches and businesses if they become linked to infections after failing to employ preventative measures.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Rohingya community leaders have urged refugees who attended a Muslim gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to come forward for Covid-19 checks. This comes after an attendee of the event tested positive after the event, where around 16000 attended. The Malaysian government has also imposed a travel ban for its citizens, as well as mandatory quarantines for returning travellers. The measures will be enforced by the military, beginning yesterday (Mar 22).
  • The Malaysian ringgit is expected to trade in volatile mode amid global fears over the Covid-19 pandemic’s effects on the global economy. The currency experienced its weakest point since 2017 last Thursday (Mar 19), at 4.4RM (S$1.45) to the US dollar, before strengthening slightly to 4.39RM to the dollar last Friday (Mar 20). However, the impacts of the pandemic have also strengthened the ringgit against the euro and the British pound.
  • Governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, has declared a two-week state of emergency in the capital, urging business leaders to allow employees to work from home. He also stated that from today (Mar 23), bars, spas, and movie theatres would be closed, and religious activities involving large congregations would not be permitted. Indonesia’s top clerical body has also allowed Muslims in areas where Covid-19 has spread uncontrollably to skip Friday prayers.
  • Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has called the fresh UN sanctions on Iran unjust and called for them to be lifted so that Iran can fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Iran has one of the highest infection rates outside of China and has been struggling to deal with the virus outbreak because of US sanctions. Pakistan has also called on restrictions on communications within Jammu and Kashmir to be lifted, so that medical supplies may be delivered to where they are needed.
  • China has begun massive shipping of masks and experts abroad in an attempt to help other countries deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. The move has strengthened ties with countries receiving its aid, including Cambodia, a longtime Chinese ally, as well as Serbia, a country hoping to join the European Union (EU). Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has criticised the EU for its failure to help while thanking China for its aid. The EU had also failed to aid Italy at the onset of the crisis, while China sent masks and other equipment abroad.
  • Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, has ordered the postponement of university entrance exams and a resumption of the work-from-home policy for civil servants. The exams will take place a month late, on Apr 24. Hong Kong has similarly closed facilities such as outdoor sports grounds and fitness centres, due to a resurgence of Covid-19 infections. Authorities also arrested civilians for failing to comply with quarantine orders by tracing their posts on social media.
  • The Competition Commission of Hong Kong issued a writ last Friday (Mar 20), claiming that three leading book publishers ran a cartel that deprived schools of a fair market price for textbooks. The writ initiates legal proceedings against the publishers in the Competition Tribunal, and names Sino-United Publishing, Commercial Press, and T.H. Lee Book Company as the colluders.
  • Last Friday (Mar 20), four men were hanged in Tihar Prison, Delhi, while crowds cheered outside. The men were convicted of the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012 and sentenced to death. The case provoked outrage at the widespread occurrence of sexual assault in India, as well as the bureaucracy’s mishandling of the investigations. 
  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has urged citizens to stay home due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. His announcement comes as Hindu citizens are preparing to make a pilgrimage to the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, to celebrate the birthday of Rama, a major deity in the Hindu faith. Siddarth Nath Singh, a state cabinet minister, has reached out to the main organiser of the religious festival to ask that devotees stay home and worship from home. The call has also been echoed by  Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Europe

  • The European Commission triggered a ‘general escape clause’ last Friday (Mar 20), lifting spending rules and allowing governments to run deficits during crises. The move was triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, as Spain and Italy have both surpassed 1000 deaths from the virus. This is the first time that the clause has been used, and it is unclear if the measures will be enough to deal with the pandemic.
  • The UK government is drawing up plans to buy equity stakes in airlines and other companies hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. The plan would see billions of pounds used to buy shares from companies such as British Airways, which would eventually be sold back to private investors. Since the crisis, airlines have been forced to fly mostly empty planes across the continent and to other destinations, on ‘use it or lose it’ regulations at busy airports, in order to keep valuable slots. 
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced nationwide lockdowns last Friday (Mar 20), reversing the previous ‘herd immunity’ policy that drew flak from the public. Mr Johnson also stated that the new measures were permitted under licensing laws and that the measures would be reviewed on a monthly basis. Finance minister Rishi Sunak also announced that the government would pay 80 per cent of the wages for employees unable to work, up to 2500 pounds a month.
  • Farming leaders in the UK have called for the government to recruit labourers for their farms from the people put out of work by the crisis. This follows labour shortages due to Brexit, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Protests broke out in France last Wednesday (Mar 18), following Amazon’s refusal to halt operations or allow staff to walk out on full pay if endangered at work. The right to walk out is legal under French law, and Finance minister Bruno Le Maire condemned Amazon last Thursday (Mar 19) for its pressure on workers, which he called unacceptable. Workers are contesting sanitary standards, and objected to potentially taking risks to dispatch non-essential products.
  • In the first time since reunification, Germany has shut down two clubs linked to anti-semitic movements that have refused to recognise the modern German state last Thursday (Mar 19). The Interior Ministry, headed by Horst Seehofer, ordered raids on homes of the groups’ leaders, and marked expansion of its focus. Previously, the Ministry had focused on Islamic terrorism. The clubs are part of the German autonomous movement, which has targeted refugees and foreigners as part of its far-right background.
  • Russian nuclear conglomerate Rosatom is set to open up a new nuclear power plant in Astravets, Belarus, near the Lithuanian-Belarusian border. It is expected to produce more energy than the country can consume, and is expected to cut Belarusian dependency on Russian gas. Some economists have criticised the deal for simply replacing dependency on Russian gas with dependency on Russian nuclear power, which is far more complex to operate. This deal, alongside others, have stirred western fears of the nuclear energy market becoming a duopoly between Russia and China.
  • Russia’s central bank held its base interest rate steady at 6 per cent last Friday (Mar 20), defying global trends. In response to threats of economic slowdown and possible recession, the bank also announced a ₽500 billion (S$9.06 billion) bank lending facility, with 4 per cent interest rates to offer loans to small and medium-sized businesses.

Middle East

  • Saudi Arabia has called for a virtual G20 summit of the group’s leaders this week, in order to discuss measures on how to alleviate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. This comes amid governments attempting to rescue their economies through financial stimulus packages and providing corporate loans so that businesses do not fail. 
  • Saudi authorities have suspended congregational prayers in most mosques and placed restrictions on praying inside the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) and the Prophet’s Mosque (Masjid al-Nabawi), beginning last Friday (Mar 20). The mosques, in Mecca and Medina respectively, are the holiest sites in Islam, and see more than a million visitors a year. The government cited the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic as the reasons for the restrictions.
  • Saudi Arabia’s Renewable Energy Project Development Office has published a list of prequalified bidders for the 1.2 GW solar tender it launched in January. The list includes bidders from France, Germany, China, Japan, the US, and Indonesia. This is the third round of its procurement program, and the Saudi government has stated that selected projects must contain 17 per cent local content.
  • Egyptian authorities arrested four women protestors last Wednesday (Mar 18), on grounds of spreading false news regarding the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They were released on bail after interrogations. Human Rights Watch has criticised the arrests as politically motivated, in an attempt to silence activists. The protesters included a Cairo University professor and mother of a jailed activist, as well as another professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
  • Israeli President Reuven Rivlin warned that its democracy would be threatened if the Knesset was unable to function well and responsibly. The warning came after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of the incumbent Likud Party, dissolved the session mere minutes after it began, making it impossible for legislators to form committees to oversee the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Edelstein, however, has defended the move as an intermission for the Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White coalition to create a unity government.
  • More than 30,000 Palestinians labourers living in the West Bank were issued permits last Tuesday (Mar 17) to stay in Israel for at least two months to prevent further spread of Covid-19 virus at border crossings. The permits were part of a deal reached between the Palestinian Finance Ministry, with the approval of the Israeli security services and the Office for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. These workers will not be allowed to return to Palestine within that time period.
  • Four Palestinian human rights organisations submitted an amicus on the territorial jurisdiction of the State of Palestine to the Pre Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The groups called for an immediate investigation into Israeli war crimes in the occupied Palestinian Territories and asserted that the nation was a single territorial unit, as it was before the 1967 war. The Australian government has challenged the jurisdiction of the ICC over alleged war crimes in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. This is so because Palestine is not a sovereign state according to international law, and instead advocates direct negotiation between the parties.
  • Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody have begun a hunger strike in protest against the Israeli Prison Service’s plan to stop supplying cleaning products and halt medical visits for detainees. The prisons already ban prison visits from families and lawyers, and many are suffering from medical negligence.

Africa

  • Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi last Thursday (Mar 19) to discuss the developments of negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This is the latest in a series of diplomatic outreach efforts from both Egypt and Ethiopia, after negotiations under the US and World Bank auspices failed.
  • UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet expressed serious concerns last Friday (Mar 20) over the escalation of intercommunal violence in South Sudan over the past month. She also urged the government to investigate and address the violence, as well as provide appropriate medical and psychological support for survivors of sexual assault.
  • Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the first man to be convicted by the International Criminal Court, has been released from prison. Lubanga was found guilty of recruiting child soldiers to fight in the Second Congo War, which occurred between 1998 and 2003. Lubanga led the Union of Congolese Patriots during the war, and the organisation has been accused of ethnic massacres, murder, and other crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment in 2012, to be counted from his detention in 2006.
  • Ugandan Finance Minister Matia Kasaija announced that the government has cut its economic growth forecast this fiscal year to a range between 5.2 to 5.7 per cent, down from 6 per cent. It will also be requesting a loan of 190 billion Ugandan Shillings (S$72.1 million) from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help the economy cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. It will also approach the IMF for help defending its currency peg, following three government interventions over the past week to sell US dollars and defend the peg.
  • At least 29 Malian soldiers have been killed in an attack on a military base in the town of Tarkint. Mali has repeatedly suffered heavy casualties from armed groups active in the area, with links to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Rebel groups have exploited poverty, as well as religious or ethnic differences to recruit civilians into their ranks. The military campaigns against these groups have also been marred by human rights abuses, which analysts say have contributed to recruitment efforts by rebels.
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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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