Matt Hancock (on the left) and Boris Johnson (on the right) | Photo credits: skynews

Mar 30: President Trump invoked defence powers to make ventilators, China’s Wuhan lifted its lockdown, and UK’s ministers tested positive for Covid-19

North America

  • US President Donald Trump has signed the largest-ever US financial stimulus package, worth $US2tn (S$2.86tn), as the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. The House of Representatives passed the cross-party bill last Friday (Mar 27) after the Senate debated its provisions. The number of Americans filing for unemployment has surged to a record high of 3.3 million people. The US has more confirmed cases of coronavirus than any other country, with more than 100,000 positive tests.
  • US stocks pulled back last Friday (Mar 27) following three straight days of gains, signalling lingering caution among investors on the outlook for the U.S. economy even as Congress passed a massive coronavirus relief package. Despite Friday’s losses, the Dow still notched its biggest weekly gain in more than 80 years. Last week, it jumped 12.8 per cent, its largest weekly percentage gain since 1938. The S&P 500 rose 10.3 per cent, its biggest such gain since March 2009.
  • General Motors (GM) has been ordered by US President Donald Trump to make ventilators for coronavirus patients. Mr Trump invoked the Korean War-era Defence Production Act, which allows a president to force companies to make products for national defence. He took to Twitter to complain that GM had lowered the number of ventilators they had promised to deliver from 40,000 to 6,000 and had wanted “top dollar”. Meanwhile, Tesla donated over 1,200 ventilators to New York to help meet demand from the growing coronavirus outbreak. On top of that, it will also reopen its gigafactory in Buffalo – which builds solar cells – and repurpose it to manufacture additional ventilators.
  • Ralph Lauren is to start making medical masks and gowns – the latest designer brand to lend its support to the coronavirus fight. The fashioner designer announced the shift in production through its charitable arm last Thursday (Mar 26). The Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation will start making 250,000 masks and 25,000 isolation gowns in the US. Other fashion brands such as Canada Goose, Gap, and Louis Vuitton, have also pledged to help make urgently needed medical wear.
  • As US states ramp up restrictions to contain the coronavirus, Texas has joined Ohio in deeming nearly all abortions as non-essential procedures that must be delayed. The order against elective procedures is meant to keep valuable medical resources for those treating Covid-19 only. In Texas, providers can be fined or jailed for violating the order. Abortion rights groups have criticised the move.
  • The US military’s newest branch has launched its first satellite, despite a short delay in the countdown. A rocket carrying a US Space Force communications satellite lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station last Thursday (Mar 26). An inaccurate reading on hydraulic equipment stopped the clock for 80 minutes before the issue was resolved. President Donald Trump established the Space Force, which is focused on warfare in space, in December 2019.
  • Canada has passed a multi-billion-dollar relief package to respond to the coronavirus slowdown. It allows the government to spend C$107bn (S$109bn) in emergency aid and economic stimulus to assist Canadians from struggling financially. All parties supported the bill following amendments that removed provisions giving the cabinet unprecedented powers. It received rapid Royal Assent (approval by the Sovereign of a bill that has passed both houses of Parliament in the identical form) last Wednesday (Mar 25).

Latin America

  • The US has charged Venezuela’s President, Nicolás Maduro, and other senior officials in the country with “narco-terrorism”. It accused them of working together with Colombian rebel group Farc to flood the US with cocaine and using drugs as a weapon to undermine the health of Americans. The charges were announced by Attorney General William Barr. A US$15m (S$21.4m) reward is being offered for information leading to Mr Maduro’s arrest. Venezuela has hit out at the “unfounded allegations” and said they showed the “desperation” of the “Washington elite”.
  • A cruise ship carrying more than 1,800 people off Panama is in a race to transfer healthy passengers to another ship after four people died – and two others tested positive for coronavirus. The owners of the Zaandam, Holland America, said that more than 130 people on board had reported suffering “flu-like symptoms” and respiratory issues. Nobody has left the ship since it docked in Chile two weeks ago. Holland America said it planned to transfer passengers to a sister ship. There are 1,243 guests and 586 crew onboard the Zaandam, including four doctors and four nurses.
  • Mexican protesters have shut a US southern border crossing amid fears that untested American travellers will spread coronavirus. Residents in Sonora, south of the US state of Arizona, have promised to block traffic into Mexico for a second day after closing a checkpoint for hours last Wednesday (Mar 25). They wore face masks and held signs telling Americans to “stay at home”. Mexico has fewer than 1,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and the US over 65,000.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has accused the media of “fear-mongering” in a speech that downplayed the threat of coronavirus to the country. In a televised address last Tuesday (Mar 24), he called on mayors and governors to roll back restrictions they have introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19. His intervention came as the two biggest cities – Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – went into partial lockdown. Brazil has reported over 3,000 confirmed infections and 111 deaths.

Asia-Pacific

  • The city in China where the coronavirus pandemic began, Wuhan, has partially re-opened after more than two months of isolation. Crowds of passengers were pictured arriving at Wuhan train station last Saturday (Mar 28). People are being allowed to enter but not leave, according to reports. On top of that, it has also announced a temporary ban on all foreign visitors, even if they have visas or residence permits. The country is also limiting Chinese and foreign airlines to one flight per week, and flights must not be more than 75 per cent full.
  • Countries such as Singapore and India have put forth contingency measures to aid their citizens and economies to tide through the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak. While the former is providing a historic US$55 billion support, the latter has announced a US$22bn (S$31.4bn) bailout for the country’s poor.
  • Singapore’s initial growth figures for this quarter not only looks to be heading for its first full-year recession in about two decades, but it also suggests that the global economy is also set for a sharp contraction. The trade-reliant city said gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 2.2 per cent year-on-year while, compared with the previous quarter, GDP fell by 10.6 per cent. It marks the biggest quarterly contraction for the South East Asian nation since 2009, in the midst of the global financial crisis.
  • The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games have been postponed until next year because of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. It will take place “no later than summer 2021”. The Olympics have never been delayed in their 124-year modern history, though they were cancelled altogether in 1916, 1940 and 1944 during World War One and World War Two. Major Cold War boycotts disrupted the Moscow and Los Angeles summer Games in 1980 and 1984.
  • US President Donald Trump has signed into law an act that requires increased its support for Taiwan internationally, prompting a denunciation by China, which said it would strike back if the law was implemented. The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, signed by Trump into law last Thursday (Mar 26) with strong bipartisan support, requires the US State Department to report to Congress on steps taken to strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic relations. It also requires the United States to “alter” engagement with nations that undermine Taiwan’s security or prosperity.
  • American journalists expelled by China are welcome to set up shop in Taiwan, foreign minister Joseph Wu said last Saturday (Mar 28), as the democratic island burnishes its credentials as a regional free-speech haven. Beijing ordered the expulsion of 13 journalists earlier this month as part of a widening spat over media freedoms with the US. The move marked the biggest crackdown on the foreign press in China in recent decades.
  • Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has suffered another mass bleaching event – the third in just five years. Warmer sea temperatures – particularly in February – are feared to have caused huge coral loss across the world’s largest reef system. Scientists say they have detected widespread bleaching, including extensive patches of severe damage. But they have also found healthy pockets. Two-thirds of the reef was damaged by similar events in 2016 and 2017.

Europe

  • Last Friday (Mar 27), UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he has tested positive for the coronavirus, making him the first world leader known to have contracted the disease. British Health Minister Matt Hancock has also tested positive for the coronavirus. Despite the coronavirus crisis, a post-Brexit meeting between the European Union and the United Kingdom will go ahead as planned this week. 
  • European stocks closed lower last Friday (Mar 27) while European Union leaders struggled to agree on a unified response on the most appropriate way to shore up economies hammered by the coronavirus. The pan-European Stoxx 600 closed at 3.2 per cent. The European Central Bank has also removed its cap on the quantity of bonds it can buy from member nations – allowing for unlimited money printing as a means to cushion the economy from the global pandemic.
  • New data has confirmed the improvement in air quality over Europe – a by-product of the coronavirus crisis. Lockdown policies and reduced economic activity have been chiefly responsible for the steep dive in emissions. According to map analyses done by the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, the most notable reduction comes from the north of Italy where the Covid-19 outbreak has been at its most severe.
  • A US$5.5bn (S$7.85bn) aid from the International Monetary Fund to Ukraine has been held up over concerns of corruption. Former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Oleksiy Honcharuk, said that the country’s anti-corruption reforms are at risk of stalling, especially at such a precarious timing when the government is asking for an expansion of foreign aid to prop up the economy. While President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen as the key person to tackle corruption, his close ties to an influential oligarch have raised suspicions of his susceptibility to pressure.
  • The European Banking Federation has said the region’s lenders should stop hoarding capital for dividend payouts and refrain from share buybacks this year so as to allow for more credit exposure to companies and consumers that are hit badly by the coronavirus. Santander stands as the only European lender that has postponed its interim dividend with its chairman, Ana Botín, donating 50 per cent of her pay to finance the setting up of medical equipment set up by the Spanish bank.

Middle East

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival has reportedly agreed to join a unity government, ending a year of political deadlock. Benjamin Gantz had previously refused to serve under Mr Netanyahu because he is facing trial – where Mr Netanyahu is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to get more positive press coverage. Mr Gantz’s surprise election as speaker of parliament last Thursday (Mar 26), paved the way for the deal of which he is set to take over the premiership in September 2021.
  • Iran has denied a claim by the family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson that he has died in custody there, saying he left the country years ago. Mr Levinson’s wife asserts that he disappeared on the Iranian island of Kish in 2007 whilst working as a private investigator. In a statement last Wednesday (Mar 25), the Levinson family claimed that information from US officials led to this conclusion – despite Iran’s vehement denial.
  • Jordan has eased an indefinite, round-the-clock curfew imposed to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Last Tuesday evening (Mar 24), prime minister Omar Razzaz said the restrictions were being eased and that people will now be allowed to make trips to small local grocery shops, bakeries, and pharmacies. So far, the country has 153 reported cases of Covid-19, but no deaths.
  • Turkey has charged 20 suspects over the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. Former Saudi Deputy Intelligence Chief Ahmad Asiri and former royal aide Saud al-Qahtani have been indicted on the basis of instigating the murder. The 18 others face accusations of carrying out the murder itself. 
  • Four workers from a French Christian charity who were kidnapped in Iraq in January have been freed, President Emmanuel Macron’s office said. The three French nationals and an Iraqi were abducted in Baghdad on January 20 at a time of heightened tensions. Their release only came a day after France’s announcement of a withdrawal of troops from Iraq as a result of the global pandemic.

Africa

  • A separatist militia in Cameroon has declared a ceasefire for a fortnight to allow for people to be tested for coronavirus. With effect from last Sunday (Mar 29), the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces’ ceasefire would commence. It is so far the only armed group among many operating in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions to have heeded the UN’s call for a global ceasefire. Having been marginalised in the Francophone nation, the rebels have been fighting to establish a breakaway state called “Ambazonia”.
  • Employees at a Tunisian factory are churning out 50,000 face masks a day and other protective medical gear after opting to go into lockdown at work. The 150 workers, mainly women, have isolated themselves at the CONSOMED factory for a month. The North African nation, which went into lockdown on Mar 22, has 227 confirmed cases of coronavirus so far.
  • Last Friday (Mar 27), Chad has imposed a state of emergency in the Western Lake Chad region, following an attack by Islamist militants Boko Haram which killed more than 90 soldiers. It was the deadliest assault by Boko Haram since the unrest spread across the border from Nigeria several years ago.
  • Last Friday (Mar 27), Zimbabwe which had previously banned the use of the dollar nine months ago, has restored the peg of its currency to the greenback due to a scarcity of foreign exchange. The southern African nation faces shortages of fuel, power, and food because it cannot afford to pay for the imports. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has also announced that the country will go into lockdown – effective as of last Monday (Mar 23).
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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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