British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered schools closed across the United Kingdom beginning Friday. Johnson reversed course this week after initially favoring a strategy to let the virus burn rapidly through the population in order to build “herd immunity.” He abandoned the approach after a study estimated that, without mitigation, a quarter of a million Britons could die.
In Brazil, the president of the Senate has tested positive for COVID-19, along with two Cabinet ministers and 16 members of President Bolsonaro’s entourage on a recent trip to the U.S. to meet with President Trump. Over the weekend, Bolsonaro — who should have self-quarantined under guidelines suggested by his own government — joined packed political rallies, hugging supporters and posing for selfies. On Wednesday, Bolsonaro and government ministers put on face masks at a news conference announcing new emergency measures to contain the virus. All over Brazil, millions of homebound residents went onto their balconies Wednesday evening banging pots and pans and shouting, “Bolsonaro out!” in protests against the far-right president’s handling of the crisis.
Reuters reports that U.S. labs have run just 60,000 coronavirus tests since late January when the first case was detected in the U.S. — compared to South Korea, which has tested nearly 300,000 people in the same time period. In Geneva, the World Health Organization’s top emergency official, Dr. Michael Ryan, said the failure of countries like the U.S. to screen for coronavirus was helping the disease to spread.
Dr. Michael Ryan: “Every suspect case should be tested, their contacts identified. If those contacts are sick or showing symptoms, they should be tested. That requires a scale-up, because many countries have not been systematically testing all suspect cases, and it’s one of the reasons why we’re behind in this epidemic.”
In Egypt, four women activists were arrested in Cairo Wednesday for protesting medical neglect in Egyptian prisons and demanding the immediate release of prisoners at risk of coronavirus. Egyptian authorities have since announced the women — including world-renowned writer Ahdaf Soueif — will be released on bail.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will pardon 10,000 additional prisoners, including political prisoners, as the official death toll from coronavirus topped 1,100 — though the WHO believes the true number is five times higher. Iran’s prisoner release came as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration was imposing new sanctions on Iran to “deprive the regime of critical income from its petrochemical industry and further Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted in response, “U.S. sanctions should not be contributing to this humanitarian disaster. As a caring nation, we must lift any sanctions hurting Iran’s ability to address this crisis, including financial sanctions.”
On Wall Street, the Dow Jones plummeted 7% at midday, triggering an automatic halt to trading for the fourth time in the last two weeks. The market crash has wiped out nearly all stock market gains since President Trump took office in early 2017. On Wednesday, all big three U.S. auto companies — Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler — decided to halt production for at least two weeks, under pressure by the United Auto Workers union to close plants for safety reasons. The closures came after a worker at a Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan, tested positive for COVID-19. About 150,000 factory workers will be idled; under a union agreement, many will receive supplemental pay along with state unemployment benefits. Meanwhile, Hyundai halted production at its plant in Montgomery, Alabama, after a worker tested positive.
President Trump has invoked the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to allow the government to direct industrial production. The White House’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Wednesday he was consulting with General Motors’s CEO to use idled factories to produce ventilators, which will be critical to keeping patients alive when a surge of coronavirus cases reaches hospitals.
Kudlow also said the Trump administration is considering taking an equity stake in companies bailed out by taxpayers. In 2008, Kudlow blasted a similar move by the Obama administration to take a stake in General Motors after a bailout as “an attack on free-market capitalism.”
On Wednesday, billionaire hedge fund investor Bill Ackman called on President Trump to shut down the country for the next 30 days and close the borders. Ackman tweeted, “With exponential compounding, every day we postpone the shutdown costs thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, and then millions of lives, and destroys the economy.” He was writing from self-isolation.
On Capitol Hill, two House lawmakers said Thursday they’ve tested positive for COVID-19: Republican Mario Díaz-Balart of Florida and Democrat Ben McAdams of Utah. Díaz-Balart tweeted that he is feeling much better after coming down with a fever and headache on Saturday. He wrote, “It’s important that everyone take this seriously and follow CDC guidelines in order to avoid getting sick & mitigate the spread of this virus.” Republican House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said he would self-quarantine for the next two weeks after close contact with Díaz-Balart.
A Pew Research Center poll found more than three in four Republicans believe the media has exaggerated the threat of the virus, following the lead of President Trump, who has repeatedly said the virus would “go away,” while accusing Democrats of making the coronavirus “their new hoax.”
Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force said Wednesday that millennials may be at a higher risk of getting seriously ill or dying from coronavirus than previously thought. Despite that, Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis rejected calls again on Wednesday to close beaches, and instead ordered beachgoers to limit themselves to parties of 10 or fewer. The pandemic is increasingly threatening prisoners and migrants held behind bars in immigration jails. An officer at New York’s infamous Rikers Island jail tested positive for COVID-19. Prisoners at the Yakima County Department of Corrections in Washington state have been quarantined after developing respiratory problems.
Hospitals around the United States are already reporting shortages of testing swabs and protective gear to shield medical workers from infection. In Washington state, workers at Providence St. Joseph Health purchased vinyl sheets, foam and industrial tape from Home Depot and began manufacturing their own face shields and masks after supplies began to dwindle. President Trump said he was immediately deploying two Navy hospital ships to free up capacity in civilian hospitals, but the Pentagon acknowledged Wednesday the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy will take weeks to deploy.
President Trump opened a White House press briefing on the pandemic Wednesday with a statement that took on racist and xenophobic overtones.
President Donald Trump: “I would like to begin by announcing some important developments in our war against the Chinese virus.”
Later in the news conference, Trump was questioned by reporter Cecilia Vega.
Cecilia Vega: “Why do you keep calling this the 'Chinese virus'? There are reports of dozens of incidents of bias against Chinese Americans in this country. Your own aide, Secretary Azar, says he does not use this term. He says ethnicity does not cause the virus. Why do you keep using this?”
President Donald Trump: “Because it comes from China.
Cecilia Vega: “A lot of people say it’s racist.”
President Donald Trump: “It’s not racist at all. No, not at all. It comes from China. That’s why. Comes from China.”
This came a day after CBS White House correspondent Weijia Jiang, who describes herself in her Twitter profile as a “Chinese born West Virginian,” tweeted, “This morning a White House official referred to #Coronavirus as the 'Kung-Flu' to my face. Makes me wonder what they’re calling it behind my back.” We’ll have more on racist remarks by President Trump and Republican lawmakers later in the broadcast.
In immigration news, the U.S.-Canada border has been temporarily closed to nonessential traffic as an attempt to deter the spread of the coronavirus. Trade will not be affected. It is unknown how long the border closure will last.
Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, says it will temporarily postpone arresting immigrants during the pandemic, and will allegedly instead focus on apprehending people who pose “public safety risks” and who are subject to mandatory detention on criminal grounds. This comes as ICE agents continued to make arrests across the country this week, including in Colorado and in California, where much of the state is in lockdown.
Senator Bernie Sanders has shot down rumors he’s planning to suspend his campaign after losses in Tuesday’s primaries in Florida, Illinois and Arizona. With about 2,000 delegates needed to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden has claimed 1,180 delegates to Sanders’s 885. Asked by a CNN correspondent Wednesday to give a timetable for his next steps, Senator Sanders responded, “I’m dealing with a [bleep]ing global crisis.” He added, “I’m trying to do my best to make sure that we don’t have an economic meltdown and that people don’t die.”
Meanwhile, The Intercept reports elections officials in Chicago used nearly 50 housing facilities for low-income seniors as polling locations on Tuesday — despite warnings that crowds of voters posed a threat of transmitting the coronavirus to an already high-risk population.