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New front: Worry over COVID-19 spreading in African refugee camps

A severe coronavirus outbreak in camps hosting vulnerable people across the continent will have disastrous consequences.

Scary, distressing, catastrophic: A bleak assessment by experts, humanitarians and epidemiologists on what a severe coronavirus outbreak would look like in countries across Africa sheltering millions of refugees and other vulnerable people.

The virus that swept across the globe has infected more than 660,000 people and killed some 30,000 since it was detected in China late last year. In Africa, the confirmed figures are still fairly low – but on the rise. As of Saturday, 3,924 infections and 117 deaths had been reported across 46 of the continent’s 54 countries.

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  • COVID-19: Africa told to prepare for worst. What’s the response?

  • Coronavirus: Which countries have confirmed cases?

  • What happens if you catch the new coronavirus?

As the rapidly spreading virus gains ground, aid groups warn of the potentially disastrous consequences of a major outbreak of COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, in places where healthcare systems are already strained and not easily accessible to large segments of the population.

Lack of funding and years of fighting have gutted critical infrastructure in several parts of the continent, which could leave many countries unable to respond to a surge in infections, said Crystal Ashley Wells, regional spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Nairobi. 

For example, in South Sudan, where more than 1.6 million people are internally displaced, it often takes people hours, even days, to reach healthcare facilities, and the leading cause of death is “often preventable: treatable diseases like malaria and diarrhoea”, Wells told Al Jazeera. 

We have surgical wards right now that are full of patients recovering from gunshot wounds,” she said. “Then you have this healthcare system that has suffered from decades of under-investment and then conflict that has basically left people with little healthcare at best.” 

Some of the internally displaced in South Sudan have found refuge in overcrowded camps inside UN peacekeeping bases.

“They’re literally living surrounded by walls and barbed wire” in tents that are only inches apart, Wells said. 

So far, war-scarred South Sudan is one of the few African countries that has not had any confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the government has introduced drastic measures aimed at reducing the risk of spread, such as suspending all air travel and barring public gatherings. 

But Wells said the risk is still there: “It’s a pretty scary picture to think about – about what a disease like this could do to an already very fragile healthcare system.”

In the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where 58 cases have been confirmed to date, COVID-19 has largely been contained in the capital, Kinshasa – unlike past outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola, which struck remote areas.

Today, it’s possible to handle sick patients because the number of patients has not yet exploded,” said Jean Paul Katsuva, an epidemiologist working on the COVID-19 response in Kinshasa, a city of 12 million people.

But the general feeling is one of anxiety – especially as people watch countries better-equipped than the DRC struggle under the weight of the pandemic. Serious help is needed, Katsuva said, for “a population that is already in distress because of this situation in which the future is unclear”. 

‘Global issue’

The contagious nature of the coronavirus, coupled with its ability to cause severe illness, has also sparked fears over what could happen if it reaches densely populated refugee camps.

A country that is of particular concern is Burkina Faso, which has registered the most confirmed cases in West Africa – 180 – and nine deaths. An impoverished country of some 20 million people, Burkina Faso has been gripped by an escalating and complex conflict that has caused “explosive displacement” over the past year, according to Wells.

“There are about 765,000 people displaced,” she said. “It’s up by more than 1,200 percent since 2019 … and it’s expected to continue to rise. Security and access to these communities is also really challenging for humanitarian workers.”

On the other side of the continent, Kenya has 38 confirmed cases to date – but none among refugees. “We would love to keep it that way,” Eujin Byun, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Kenya, told Al Jazeera.

The East African country is home to two major camps: Dadaab, near the country’s eastern border with Somalia, had a population of nearly 218,000 refugees and asylum seekers at the end of February, and Kakuma, in the northwest near the borders with South Sudan and Uganda, counts more than 190,000 refugees. 

Byun said having so many people living in close proximity is one of the major risk factors for the spread of the virus, while ensuring that refugees have access to clean water and soap – two of the most effective weapons against it – is critical. 

UNHCR has altered its operations in the camps to try to avoid gatherings, Byun said. For example, to reduce the contact between residents and humanitarian workers, it plans to distribute two months’ worth of food rations at once, whereas in the past, they were distributed monthly or every two weeks. 

The agency has already stopped sending outside missions into the camps to prevent a potential spread of the virus. Staff already in the camps will remain there to provide essential, life-saving services – and they have access to mental health support, Byun said. 

Information is also being sent to residents via mobile phone apps such as WhatsApp, she added, to limit social gatherings and “to reduce fear and panic in the refugee camp and prevent any kind of misinformation”. 

Ninety beds are available inside the Dadaab camp itself to accommodate coronavirus patients, while 25 beds are set up in Kakuma, Byun said. COVID-19 isolation facilities are also set up in nearby Kenyan host communities, and both refugees and residents will have access to them. 

We’re not doing this in a silo; we have to communicate and coordinate with the local authority,” Byun said, adding that UNHCR welcomed the Kenyan government’s decision to include refugees and asylum seekers in its national plan to combat COVID-19. 

This is a global issue, and we have to think [of it] like a global issue – not just like a refugee issue.” 

Refugees ‘sidelined’

Indeed, UNHCR on Wednesday launched a global appeal for $255m to respond to the coronavirus in refugee camps and other vulnerable areas, as part of a wider humanitarian relief plan seeking $2bn.

We must come to the aid of the ultra-vulnerable – millions upon millions of people who are least able to protect themselves,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, calling for stronger coordination to ensure the more vulnerable countries get the support they need.

On Thursday, the Red Cross called for $823m “to help the world’s most vulnerable communities” stop the spread of COVID-19 and recover from the pandemic. That includes migrants and displaced people, homeless people, and those living in disaster-prone areas, among others. 

But just how much donor countries will be able to contribute to those funding drives remains an open question. Most governments are struggling to stave off an economic crisis within their own borders and to support their citizens, many of whom have lost their jobs, through the pandemic. 

In that context, “governments are going to face some really difficult decisions between allocating scarce resources to their own population and the refugee camp”, said Sally Hargreaves, assistant professor in global health at the Institute for Infection and Immunity at St George’s University of London. 

Refugees will be the ones that are sidelined in all of this as the governments move towards supporting their own population as best [as] they can,” she said. 

Hargreaves told Al Jazeera that refugees and IDPs must be included in national COVID-19 plans because they are vulnerable and risk being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. She said it is going to take a significant international effort – and investment – to make sure these groups are not left behind. 

We can’t forget about them. We can’t leave them to fend for themselves,” said Hargreaves. “We need to make sure governments prioritise them – not just their own populations – and [that] they’re funded and supported in doing it.” 

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Barcelona players including Messi take pay cut amid virus crisis

As fatalities and the number of coronavirus patients soar in Spain, football club cuts salaries of players and staff.

FC Barcelona is taking measures to cut the wages of its players and staff to reduce the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis, the club said on Thursday.

All professional players at Barcelona, including Lionel Messi, as well as non-playing staff, will face a compulsory wage reduction during the period of lockdown, the club’s directors decided at a board meeting held via video conference.

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Spain was put into lockdown on March 14, with citizens allowed to leave their homes only for essential business.

Spain is Europe’s second-most affected country behind Italy, with the death toll – after officials announced a further 769 fatalities on Friday – nearing 5,000. More than 64,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

“Among the measures adopted, it’s worth noting those related to the workplace are motivated by the need to adapt the contractual obligations of the club staff to the new and temporary circumstances that we are experiencing,” Barcelona said in a statement.

“It is a reduction of the working day, imposed by the circumstances and the protection measures carried out, and, as a consequence, the proportional reduction of the remuneration provided for in the respective contracts.”

Meanwhile, the club has made its facilities available to the Catalan government’s regional health department. 

“We are a very long way from normality in football, as well as in all aspects of life,” said Al Jazeera’s sport correspondent Lee Wellings. 

“It’s only a situation of this enormity that you can start to imagine any football club telling their star player they are enforcing a wage cut. But the circumstances have been so overwhelming that there seems an inevitability to such a move.

“It’s common sense financially, and sends out the right message to the fans and the world.

“La Liga clubs have stepped up their service to the community, including making facilities available to local health departments and contacting and helping supporters over the age of 80.”

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Coronavirus: Six heartening stories you may have missed

Accelerating pandemic has left governments and people reeling, but some developments offer hope.

It’s been just over two weeks since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak, which first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December, a global pandemic. 

To date, more than 510,000 people have been infected worldwide, with more than 22,900 people dying from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

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  • Coronavirus: Which countries have confirmed cases?

  • Coronavirus: What sporting events are affected by the pandemic?/a>

  • Coronavirus: Travel restrictions, border shutdowns by country

Infections, the rates of which have accelerated since the outbreak began, have touched nearly every corner of the world and prompted unprecedented and widespread travel restrictions and business closures that threaten a global recession. At least three billion people, including India’s 1.3 billion population, have been ordered to stay home.

Even as new cases in China have dropped dramatically, leading to the easing of many restrictions, places such as Italy, Spain, Iran, and the United States have become new hot spots for the virus, for which there is no vaccine or proven treatment.

The speed and severity with which the virus has swept across the planet have left international organisations, governments and individuals reeling. 

But the last few months have not been without developments that offer reasons for hope.

Here are six positive stories to watch:

WHO launches global trial of possible treatments

The WHO launched a global trial to quickly assess the most promising treatments for the virus and the disease it causes. The organisation is currently looking at four drugs or drug combinations that were developed for other illnesses and are already approved for human use and could be made widely available. 

The simplified study will rely on data generated from thousands of patients at participating hospitals in countries around the world, while requiring little extra time and effort from already overwhelmed medical personnel.

As of March 20, Thailand, Argentina, Bahrain, Canada, France, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland had signed on to participate in the trial.

During the global study, according to Science magazine, a physician can enter the information of a hospitalised infected person, who has signed a consent form, into a WHO website. The physician will tell the WHO website which of the possible treatments are available at the hospital, and the website will randomly assign the patient to one of the drugs available or to the local standard of care.

Physicians will record the day the patient left the hospital or died, the duration of the hospital stay, and whether the patient required oxygen or ventilation, Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, a medical officer at WHO’s Department of Immunization Vaccines and Biologicals, told the magazine.

The massive data set it yields could quickly indicate which treatments are the most effective. 

“We are doing this in record time,” Restrepo told Science.

UK call for volunteers exceeds expectations

United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday night called for 250,000 volunteers to help deliver groceries and medicine to the most vulnerable citizens who have been ordered to self-isolate.

Within 24 hours, more than 400,000 people had signed up. That number soon rose to more than half a million, according to the BBC – larger than Britain’s armed forces, which currently stand at just over 192,000.

Under the National Health Service volunteer plan, healthcare professionals and some charities will be able to request help for their at-risk patients, who will then be matched with volunteers who live near them.

Any adults who are fit and healthy can apply to help deliver medicine from pharmacies, drive patients to appointments, or make regular phone calls to check on people.

About 11,000 former medics also agreed to return to the health service, while more than 24,000 final-year student nurses and medics will also aid the health system.      

Air pollution drops 

A silver lining of countries locking down across the planet, grinding transport and most industry to halt, has been a marked decline in air pollution. 

Satellite imagery has shown pollution in China plummeting as large swaths of the country shut down at the height of the outbreak there. 

The European Environment Agency (EEA) on Wednesday confirmed that the concentration of pollutants, in particular nitrogen dioxide, which is largely caused by road transport, recently massively declined in Europe “especially in major cities under lockdown measures”.

In Milan, the industrial capital of Italy, the average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide for the past four weeks have been at least 24 percent lower than four weeks earlier in the year, according to EEA. 

In Bergamo, the average concentration of the pollutant during the week of March 16 to March 22 was 47 percent lower than for the same week in 2019. And in Rome, the average nitrogen dioxide concentrations for the past four weeks were between 26 and 35 percent lower than for the same weeks in 2019.

The trend can be seen beyond Italy: In Spain, Barcelona’s average nitrogen dioxide levels went down by 40 percent from one week to the next. Compared with the same week in 2019, that reduction was 55 percent.

In Madrid, the average nitrogen dioxide levels went down by 56 percent from one week to the next. Compared with the same week in 2019, the reduction was 41 percent. 

Italy coronavirus outbreak ‘peak’ may soon be reached

Experts have urged patience in awaiting the outbreak of coronavirus in Italy, the world’s largest hot spot, to reach its peak. Scientists have been forced to learn about the new virus in real time as it spreads, making predictions particularly difficult.

Italy has so far recorded more than 8,000 deaths and over 80,000 infections. 

On Saturday, Italy recorded its highest daily death toll of 793 new fatalities from COVID-19.

However, since then the daily toll, while remaining high, has not surpassed that number. Daily new cases have also leveled off. 

The numbers are grounds for tentative optimism, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Strategic Initiatives, Ranieri Guerra, told Italian radio station Radio Capital, Italian newswire ANSA reported on Wednesday. 

“The slowing in the pace of growth is an extremely positive factor, and in some regions, I believe we are close to the drop-off point of the curve, therefore the peak may be reached this week and then fall away,” Guerra said.

Guerra also told the radio station that the effect of Italy’s nationwide lockdown – which began on March 9 and was tightened in the following days – could soon be reflected in the number of cases.  

“I believe that this week and the first days of the next will be decisive because they will be moments in which the government’s measures of 15 to 20 days ago should find an effect.”

US hospitals prepare to use blood plasma as treatment

US hospitals are gearing up to test a century-old treatment used to fight off flu and measles outbreaks in the days before vaccines, and tried more recently against Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). This treatment might also work for COVID-19. 

The US Food and Drug Administration said it is expediting approving the use of recovered patients’ plasma to treat the newly infected. 

When a person gets infected by a particular virus, the body starts making specially designed proteins called antibodies to fight the infection. After the person recovers, those antibodies float in survivors’ blood – specifically in the plasma, the liquid part of blood – for months, even years.

Injecting the plasma into another infected patient could boost the body’s ability to fight the infection, lessening the severity of the disease and freeing up hospital resources. 

“Every patient that we can keep out of the ICU [intensive care unit] is a huge logistical victory because there are traffic jams in hospitals,” Michael Joyner, an anesthesiologist and physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told Nature scientific journal.

“We need to get this on board as soon as possible, and pray that a surge doesn’t overwhelm places like New York and the West Coast.”

Doctors in China attempted the first COVID-19 treatments using donated plasma from survivors of the new virus, but studies done there have only yielded preliminary results. 

Cuban doctors sent to help overwhelmed Italian health system

Cuba has dispatched a brigade of doctors and nurses to Italy to aid in the fight against coronavirus, following a request from the worst-affected Lombardy region.

While the UN has called on international cooperation to battle the pandemic, many countries have been forced to focus on their own populations, as healthcare systems across the world face supply and staffing shortages. 

Cuba has sent its “armies of white robes” to disaster sites around the world since its 1959 revolution. However, the 52-strong brigade of medical personnel represents the first time Cuba has sent an emergency contingent to Italy, which has been brought to its knees by the pandemic, despite being one of the world’s richest countries.

“We are all afraid but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfill, so we take out fear and put it to one side,” Leonardo Fernandez, 68, an intensive care specialist, told Reuters news agency shortly before his brigade’s departure.

“He who says he is not afraid is a superhero, but we are not superheroes, we are revolutionary doctors,” he said. 

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Chaos and hunger amid India coronavirus lockdown

India’s strict lockdown of 1.3 billion people has disrupted lives with migrant workers and the poor facing hunger.

New Delhi, India – As countries globally began enforcing strict lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, India, the world’s second most populous country, followed suit.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced a 21-day lockdown to contain the virus spread that has now killed 17 Indians and infected more than 700 others. 

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The South Asian nation reported its first coronavirus case on January 30 but in recent weeks the number of infections has climbed rapidly, worrying public health experts who say the government should have acted sooner.

India’s main opposition Congress party has also criticised the government over a delayed response.

Government defends lockdown

But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sundhanshu Mittal said India was one of few countries to have acted swiftly and decisively to contain the outbreak.

“You can’t have knee-jerk reactions to such catastrophes without evaluating and anticipating the scale of the problem and looking at the international domain knowledge and consensus. A lot of administrative decisions were made,” he said.

India’s Health and Family Welfare Ministry claims the rate of increase in infections has stabilised. “While the numbers of COVID-19 cases are increasing, the rate at which they are increasing appears to be relatively stabilising. However, this is only the initial trend,” a spokesperson said.

According to the latest report by the country’s top medical research body, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), 27,688 coronavirus tests had been carried out by 9am on Friday.

“A total of 691 individuals have been confirmed positive among suspected cases and contacts of known positive cases,” read the ICMR update. On Thursday, India witnessed the highest daily increase in COVID-19 cases of 88 people.

While the numbers do not paint a grim picture compared to other countries that are finding it difficult to contain the virus, concern is growing among healthcare experts who believe that the number of infections could be far higher than what is being reported.

Academics from three American universities and the Delhi School of Economics in a report based on current trends and demographics have claimed that India could experience as many as 1.3 million coronavirus infections by mid-May.

Scaling up testing facilities

Experts also say India’s capacity to test is poor and more robust testing would reveal the true extent of the pandemic.

“We have to test anyone who is showing any symptoms, we can’t be restricted to hospitalised cases or those with travel history,” said Dr T Sundaraman, the national convener of the People’s Health Movement.

“We don’t know much because the rate of testing is still modest and very limited. If the testing expands we may find the real numbers which we don’t have,” he told Al Jazeera.

Facing its biggest health emergency since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947, the Indian government announced a series of steps starting with a 14-hour public curfew on Sunday. 

The government has also scaled up testing facilities and engaged private contractors to help it conduct tests.

From 72 testing centres initially, India now has 104, with a capacity to test 8,000 samples daily. Another two rapid testing laboratories that can conduct more than 1,400 tests per day are also expected to be operating soon.

Leena Meghaney, a legal expert on public healthcare, claimed that a global shortage of chemicals used in the tests and the validation of testing kits being produced domestically were hindering India’s testing capacity.

“This shortage was not specific to India but a global phenomenon. It happened in the USA and France, and India must have faced a similar shortage. The government had to scale it up and procure testing kits from companies which had to be first validated [which] also took some time,” Meghaney told Al Jazeera.

Shortage of PPE and ventilators

Not only is India’s testing capability low, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the country is also facing a shortage of equipment needed to support medical staff.

Some say shortages of N-95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) used by healthcare workers have been caused by a last-minute rush by the government, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) warning governments in February to scale up production.

India has 0.7 hospital beds for every 100,000 people, far fewer than countries like South Korea (six per 100,000) that have been able to successfully contain the virus.

Ventilators are also in short supply. India has nearly 100,000 ventilators but most are owned by private hospitals and are already being used by existing patients with critical illnesses.

Some reports suggest that India needs another 70,000 ventilators, which it usually imports, but on Friday, the government announced that it had ordered only 10,000

“Ventilators are a costly and critical piece of equipment which are going to go under production by [the state-run] Defence Research and Development Organisation,” said Dr Preeti Kumar of the Public Health Foundation of India, a public-private organisation.

“And then we have items like caps, masks, gowns and gloves. These are high-volume and low-cost consumables that will definitely be produced. It is not the state that is going to produce, it will only order. A lot will depend on how geared up our production companies are to come up to speed and start producing.” 

Migrants workers stranded

Meanwhile, Sundaraman from the People’s Health Movement highlighted how the stress of lockdown appeared to be overtaking the stress of the disease. Sundaraman said his biggest concern was the thousands of migrants who found themselves stranded across India as Modi announced the lockdown with just four hours’ notice.

“What is really worrying is the huge migration that has started across the country. You just can’t stop public transport like that. The lockdown should have been done in a phased way. People shouldn’t be stranded without income, without work. Even in an authoritarian state, they would know that this is something the state has to do,” said Sundaraman.

Photographs of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres or crammed in trucks and empty railway crates show how the government ignored their plight.

Police have also resorted to heavy-handedness against migrants, street vendors and meat sellers. One person died in the state of West Bengal after being beaten up by police for venturing out to buy milk during the lockdown.

In a video shared on Twitter, police appeared to use batons on Muslim worshippers leaving a mosque during a ban on religious gatherings. Al Jazeera has not verified whether the video is authentic.

Meanwhile, in an apparent violation of the lockdown rules, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, was seen organising a religious function in Ayodhya town.

‘Totally unplanned’

Reetika Khera, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and a right to food activist, claimed that the prime minister’s speeches created panic among migrants and then police mishandled the lockdown.

“Now the police are the biggest problem. They are violating government rules. Essential services are to remain open and the biggest violator is the police. I am not sure about the government’s communication strategy, they are supposed to be sharp at that but clearly that is not the case if we can’t communicate clearly to the police,” she said.

The lockdown has also led to the shutdown of routine healthcare services, with Megahney claiming that people with other illnesses have now been stranded without healthcare.

“I know a number of people with HIV who have been stranded. Similarly, a lot of cancer patients are finding it hard to access basic healthcare services. This must be addressed urgently because one of the fallouts of COVID-19 could be that people with other diseases could end up paying the price,” said Meghaney.

Mittal, the BJP leader said the lockdown was announced swiftly so the government could contain the spread of infection.

“If there are migrants who are stranded, government is making provisions to make them reach their houses.”

Meanwhile, the Indian government on Thursday announced a $23bn fiscal stimulus package to help the poor address financial hardships during the three-week lockdown. India’s finance minister claimed that no one would go hungry during this period. 

“One unequivocally good announcement is the doubling of entitlement for existing Public Distribution System card holders,” Khera told Al Jazeera.

India has an existing welfare programme for the poor and the government appears to be using that to provide direct cash transfers and food grains.

However, nearly 85 percent of India’s population works in the informal sector and migrants, in particular, do not have access to these resources.


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UAE imposes curfew for deep cleaning as coronavirus cases rise

Infections in the Gulf region passed 2,600 on Thursday, as Saudi Arabia’s cases passed 1,000.

The United Arab Emirates has imposed overnight curfews to allow for a nationwide disinfection to combat the coronavirus as cases in the Gulf region have risen to over 2,600.  

Authorities said restrictions on movement of traffic and people in the UAE will start overnight from Thursday until Sunday and will last from 8pm (16:00 GMT) to 6am (02:00 GMT).

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Only essential service workers would be allowed out and violators will face fines, a security forces spokesman said in a press conference on Thursday. Public transport including trams and metro services will be suspended, while private cars, cabs and delivery vehicles can operate outside those hours, according to the official. 

On Wednesday, Dubai directed the private sector to implement remote working for most staff, but exempted a broad spectrum of businesses. The next day, the UAE government ordered all federal ministries and establishments and the private sector to limit the number of staff in offices to 30 percent, exempting sectors providing what the government considers to be essential services.

The latest measures come as the country slowly followed other Gulf states in suspending passenger flights and closing public venues such as restaurants and malls.

On Thursday, the number of coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia passed 1,000 with 112 new infections reported, most of them in the capital Riyadh and the holy city of Mecca.

They also reported a third death from the virus, a resident in Medina who had suffered from chronic diseases.

Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar also saw more cases, taking the total in the six Gulf states to over 2,600, with nine deaths.

Among the countries, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have taken the most drastic steps, including imposing partial nationwide curfews and suspending work at most public and private sector establishments.

Kuwait on Thursday banned all taxis, directed the state supply company to cover any basic food shortages and said it would disburse a month’s salary to all Kuwaiti students abroad.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has released 250 foreign detainees held on non-violent immigration and residency offences as part of efforts to contain the spread of the disease, the state-backed Human Rights Commission said on Thursday. Bahrain and Kuwait have also announced prisoner releases.

Citizen evacuations

The island nation of Bahrain has continued to evacuate several hundred Bahraini pilgrims stranded in Iran, which is an epicentre for the disease in the region, with over 29,000 cases reported and 2,400 deaths. 

A second repatriation flight of around 60 Bahrainis arrived overnight Thursday from the holy Shia Iranian city of Mashhad, operated by Iranian airline Kish, families and a Bahraini official told Reuters news agency.

Bahrain earlier this month repatriated 165 people, but a number of subsequent scheduled flights were cancelled. At least 85 of the first batch of evacuees tested positive for the virus.

In Qatar, the government’s crisis committee ordered the closure of all non-vital shops, and cafes and entertainment outlets, and restricted the working hours of all other shops to 6am to 7pm.

Pharmacies, grocery stores and delivery services are excluded from these restrictions, the committee said in a press conference on Saturday.

Qatar recorded 12 new cases of the virus on Thursday, taking its total to 549. 

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India quarantines 15,000 after virus kills 'super-spreader' guru

Religious leader dies of COVID-19 after preaching in over dozen villages in Punjab state, prompting strict restrictions.

At least 15,000 people who may have caught the new coronavirus from a Sikh religious leader are under strict quarantine in northern India after the man died of COVID-19.

The 70-year-old guru, Baldev Singh, had returned from a trip to Europe’s virus epicentre Italy and Germany before he went preaching in more than a dozen villages in Punjab state.

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Nineteen people who were in contact with the preacher have already tested positive for the new virus, said Vinay Bublani, a local deputy police commissioner.

Results are awaited for more than 200 other people, who were tested.

The case has sparked one of India’s most serious alerts related to the pandemic, with special food deliveries made to each household under even tighter restrictions than the strict 21-day nationwide stay-at-home order imposed by the government.

“The first of these 15 villages was sealed on March 18, and we think there are 15,000 to 20,000 people in the sealed villages,” said Gaurav Jain, a senior magistrate for the district of Banga, where Singh lived.

“There are medical teams on standby and regular monitoring,” he told AFP news agency on Friday.

‘Shadow of death’

The guru and his two associates – who have also tested positive – ignored self-isolation orders on their return from Europe, and were on their preaching tour until Singh fell ill and died.

The case has stunned India and a popular Punjabi singer based in Canada, Sidhu Moose Wala, released a song about Singh that has been viewed on YouTube more than 2.3 million times in less than two days.

“I passed on the disease … roaming around the village like a shadow of death,” say the lyrics to the song, which Punjab’s police chief Dinkar Gupta has encouraged people to listen to as a warning.

With 918 confirmed coronavirus cases and 20 deaths, India’s toll is lower than other countries afflicted by the pandemic, but experts say many infections have not been detected due to a lack of testing.

The South Asian nation of some 1.3 billion people reported its first coronavirus case on January 30 but in recent weeks the number of infections has climbed rapidly.


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Who is leading the global fight against coronavirus?

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China in coronavirus propaganda push as US ties worsen

State media lauds China as global leader in fight against disease in bid to defuse criticism it allowed virus to spread.

Chengdu, China – On March 18, China marked a milestone in its “people’s war” against the new coronavirus. For the first time in three months, there were no new local infections in the central province of Hubei, where more than 60 million people remain confined to their homes as part of a nationwide effort to control the deadly outbreak.

The respiratory illness caused by the new pathogen, first detected in late December in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, has spread rapidly across the world, infecting more than 465,000 people and killing more than 21,000 as of March 26. 

Europe has become the new epicentre of the disease, also known as COVID-19, with the death toll in Italy and Spain higher than China and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Tuesday that the United States might be next.

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But in China, the outbreak appears to be under control, with less than 5,000 patients still undergoing treatment and new cases confirmed only among people returning from overseas.

Authorities in Beijing, who were widely criticised for initially covering up the outbreak, are now hailing their success, highlighting the unparalleled measures that helped quell the outbreak within the country and positioning China as a global leading power in the fight against the coronavirus – all while engaging in an acrimonious war of words with the US.

Prior to the slowing of local transmissions in China, the country’s highly controlled state media was almost exclusively pushing one narrative: the supremacy of the so-called “system with Chinese characteristics” in fighting the outbreak.

News anchors and online reporters praised the central leadership for utilising measures unthinkable in other countries in their bid to contain the virus, including a nationwide quarantine, the use of mass surveillance to track infections bringing the world’s second-largest economy to a near-halt.

“With utmost determination to curb the outbreak growth, China has bought enough time for the world to prepare itself for this pandemic,” Geng Shuang, the spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters on March 19, suggesting that China’s draconian measures had slowed down the transmission of the disease worldwide.

‘Global leader against coronavirus’

As the domestic pressure to contain the outbreak eased, state media shifted their focus to featuring China’s recent effort to deploy medics and resources to areas most hard-hit by the virus, particularly Italy and Iran, labelling itself as a global leader in the battle against the virus.

China has sent planeloads of medical equipment, including the much sought-after masks, ventilators, and other personal protective equipment to the worst-hit countries in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.

CCTV, the official state broadcaster, continuously plays videos of Chinese medics arriving in Bergamo in northern Italy and Iran’s capital, Tehran.

CGTN, the international wing of CCTV, and Global Times, a state-owned English language tabloid, are two of the many state media outlets praising China’s “generosity” and “leadership” during the pandemic.

Positive feedback from global leaders, such as Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, and officials from Venezuela and the Philippines – mostly comments applauding China’s support and leadership  – have also been prominently featured in the state media coverage.

Meanwhile, the social media accounts of government-backed media institutions are at the front line of the propaganda push, including on Twitter and Facebook, which are both banned in China.

‘Shifting domestic anger’

By doing so, Beijing is trying to shift domestic and international attention away from the pent-up anger in the country towards the central government for an initial cover-up of the outbreak that many say paved the way for the rapid spread of the virus.

“By pushing for this narrative, China is avoiding the blame and successfully dodging culpability for its role in spreading the coronavirus,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

“In suppressing information about the virus and allowing it to spread unchecked in the crucial early days and weeks, the regime imperilled the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks.”

Some analysts say what triggered the propaganda machine in China is the deterioration in relations between Beijing and Washington, which are also locked in a bitter trade dispute.

Last week, tensions escalated after China expelled more than a dozen American journalists working for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post newspapers, in a tactic seen as retaliation for the US designating China’s state media as diplomatic missions.

‘Blame game’

Now officials in the two countries are blaming each other for the current pandemic.

Since early March, Chinese officials and state media have been pushing the idea that the new coronavirus could have originated somewhere else – notably the US.

Lijian Zhao, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, has been particularly vocal in questioning the US’s role in the viral outbreak.

On March 12, Zhao posted a tweet saying: “It might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan”. And despite widespread criticism over the unsubstantiated claim, Zhao continues to blame Washington.

Articles with titles along the lines of The virus didn’t come from China: the US brought the virus to China as a bioweapon are widely shared across China’s tightly-controlled internet.

Some of these pieces filled with conspiracy theories say the US army brought the virus to China during the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October last year. State media is also calling for an “inquiry” into the US’s role in the emergence of this outbreak, publishing articles that question Washington based on an unfounded assumption that the US was behind the spread of the virus.

Aggressive foreign policy

The WHO and leading medical experts say the virus jumped from an animal host to humans, stressing that the suggestion that the pathogen did not have a natural origin are “dangerous” to the effort to contain the pandemic.

But Chinese academics are also supporting the narrative of US involvement.

Chen Xuyan, a scientist based in Beijing, appeared on CCTV on March 18 and suggested that the fast speed of research on COVID-19 vaccines in the US could be attributed to the possibility that Washington had already obtained the virus long before, by extension implying the US might have sent the virus to China.

“The Xi government is following a very aggressive foreign policy now, engaging in what Mao Zedong called a ‘tongue war’ – the propaganda war,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury who specialises in Chinese politics.

The resentment in China has been exacerbated by US President Donald Trump’s decision to use terms like “foreign virus” and more frequently, “Chinese virus”, to refer to the new pathogen.

Images posted online show that during a recent news conference, Trump crossed out the word “corona” and wrote “CHINESE” in front of the word “virus” in the script of his speech. 

The Chinese foreign ministry has called the moves “irresponsible” and “racist”.

Instead of sweeping Trump’s comments under the rug, which is usually what the state media does for comments that go against the Communist Party line, the government is using Trump’s remarks as a tactic to incite public anger towards the US leader and as an extension, the US as a whole.

“With the US facing its own credibility issues in recent years, China’s false narrative threatens to spread as quickly as the coronavirus,” wrote Matthew Karnitschnig, the chief Europe correspondent of Politico.

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Coronavirus stretches Australia welfare agency to the limit

Government says as many as one million Australians could find themselves out of work in coming days due to shutdown.

Canberra, Australia – Queues outside welfare offices stretched for blocks, the main government website crashed, and hundreds of thousands of people suddenly found themselves without a job as Australia this week tightened restrictions designed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

The federal government has warned that as many as one million Australians could find themselves out of work in the coming days as a result of the shutdown.

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Rich was at work in a bar in the western city of Perth on Sunday evening when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a second stimulus package to support the economy. Rich, who preferred to share only his first name, said he immediately realised he and his colleagues were about to lose their jobs.

“All pubs, gyms, cafes are to be closed so we’re all out of work,” the 29-year-old explained. “I suppose I am still technically employed but who knows when the pubs and restaurants can reopen.”

Cafes and restaurants are still allowed to serve takeaway food and drinks, but the government has hinted that this could change if Australians do not practice adequate physical distancing.

Rich headed to his local Centrelink office to sign up for welfare payments. 

“I got there two hours early to beat the queues,” he said. “Not sure what I’ll do going forward … hopefully, my partner keeps her job.”

Non-essential services were ordered to close this week across Australia as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continued to increase. Restrictions announced on Sunday evening have become progressively stronger, with new measures being announced daily.

To keep the economy going, the government announced two large stimulus packages worth 84 billion Australian dollars ($50bn) in quick succession. Both packages were passed by a reduced-in-size Parliament on Monday evening. 

‘Depression-era’

A key element of the stimulus is a fortnightly 550 Australian dollar ($332) welfare supplement for the unemployed, which will be paid for the next six months on top of existing payments.

The government has also announced that “individuals in financial stress” will be able to access their superannuation retirement funds early, while small and medium businesses are eligible for assistance if they agree to hold onto existing employees.

The announcement sent a flood of people to the government’s MyGov website, which crashed after nearly 100,000 people tried to access Centrelink – Australia’s government welfare agency – to sign up for the new payments on Monday.

It later emerged that while the website had been upgraded ahead of the stimulus announcement, it was capable of handling only 55,000 access requests at once.

The government services minister, Stuart Robert, admitted the authorities had not anticipated just how many people would need help.

“My bad [for] not realising the sheer scale of the decision on Sunday night by national leaders that literally saw hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, people unemployed overnight,” Robert told 2GB radio on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, thousands of people were again queueing outside Centrelink offices around the country, with lines snaking around blocks in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra. Many said they had been in line since the early hours of the morning after being turned away the day before.

Greens MP Adam Bandt described the queues as: “Depression-era images.”

#MyGov has crashed, lines at Centrelink are winding around the block. These are Depression-era images and we need a Depression-like response to make sure no one is left behind. https://t.co/MeSNKKenEp

In Sydney, Alex had been working at an aviation imports company since November. He found himself out of work at the weekend because of the dramatic drop in business.

“Once China went into lockdown, less cargo started to come through,” 25-year-old Alex told Al Jazeera. With one month left on his probation, Alex was eager to keep his job so offered to reduce his working hours. His employer agreed.

“I really tried to go above and beyond, so after they started cutting hours, I finally felt safe,” Alex said. “Then I was blindsided with a termination of employment letter and a meeting telling me to pack up and leave. Within five minutes, I was heading towards my car.”

‘Stuck in a loop’

Alex is currently trying to sign up to Centrelink to access welfare support but says the website continues to have significant problems and it’s “impossible to get someone on the phone”.

“I’m stuck in a loop,” he explained, unable to upload letters the registration process requires. “The queue for the Centrelink office near me extends out the doors and around the block from morning until closing.”

“The intense and widespread need for these payments is heartbreaking,” said Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS).

“The current events highlight just how important it is for all of us that we have a strong, safe, adequate social safety net for everyone, and that the government provides adequate resources for it to respond, including in times of crisis.”

ACOSS is also calling for action on housing security such as temporary moratoriums on eviction and cash assistance for people who are already homeless.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, a 43-year-old travel writer and tour guide who prefers to be known only as Peter made the difficult decision earlier this month to return to Sydney with his wife from their home overseas. Peter has been unable to find work so has signed up for welfare.

“I visited the Centrelink office on Monday morning at opening time to verify my identity,” Peter told Al Jazeera, saying he preferred not to give his name because he was afraid the welfare agency might dislike his criticism.

“The line was about 50 metres long and the waiting room was already full … all trying to keep their distance from one another.”

“I believe some of these things can now be done over the phone, but the website is still down and the phone system isn’t working,” he added. “That’s why everyone is still going to the office.”

The MyGov website was working on Wednesday but phone queues were hours long.

Non-Australian citizens residing in the country are in a particularly difficult position. Centrelink provides support only to citizens and some permanent residents. 

Sebastian, 32, came to Australia six years ago from South America to do a master’s degree and has been working in the aquatic industry as a lifeguard and swimming teacher at an inner-city council pool in Melbourne.

“They closed the pool and gave us one day’s notice,” Sebastian said. “The lifeguards are all casuals … No paid leave, nothing.”

Unable to access Australian government welfare, Sebastian says he has been forced to start working for Uber Eats, but “it barely pays the bills and if they shut down deliveries, I’m done”.

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Relief and sadness as Tokyo Olympic Games postponed to 2021

Sporting bodies, athletes welcome decision to postpone Summer Games by a year as coronavirus pandemic accelerates.

The Tokyo Olympic Games have been postponed to 2021 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the first such delay in the Games’ 124-year modern history, as the global outbreak of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the international sporting calendar.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the decision on Tuesday after speaking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and local organisers, ending weeks of speculation and uncertainty about the Summer Games – initially scheduled to kick off in July.

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“The unprecedented and unpredictable spread of the outbreak has seen the situation in the rest of the world deteriorating,” IOC and Tokyo 2020 organisers said in joint statement. 

“The Games … in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community,” it added.

Before the official announcement, Abe said IOC President Thomas Bach had agreed to his proposal for a one-year postponement.

“President Bach said he will agree ‘100%,’ and we agreed to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in the summer of 2021 at the latest,” Abe said, saying holding the games next year would be “proof of a victory by human beings against the coronavirus infections.”

On Sunday, Bach said a decision on postponing the games would be made in the next four weeks. But pressure grew as national federations, sport governing bodies and athletes spoke out against having the opening ceremony as planned on July 24.

The decision came only a few hours after local organizers said the torch relay would start as planned on Thursday. It was expected to start in northeast Fukushima prefecture, but with no torch, no torchbearers and no public. Those plans also changed.

“For the time being, the flame will be stored and displayed in Fukushima,” organising committee President Yoshiro Mori said.

‘Common sense prevails’

The postponement marks the first break in the four-year cycle for the Summer Olympic Games since the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled because of World War II. 

The coronavirus pandemic has already forced the postponement and cancellation of dozens of sporting events, including Olympic qualifiers.

As of Tuesday, more than 17,200 people had died from COVID-19 and 396,000 infected in almost 190 countries, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

Al Jazeera’s sports correspondent Lee Wellings said: “Common sense has prevailed,” but the delay in the announcing the decision caused “some uncertainty and anxiety.”

“This is a time where people need some certainty and there will be a huge sense of relief among athletes, and everybody involved,” he added. 

Athletes, national associations and sporting federations from around the world reacted with a mixture of sadness, relief and goodwill to the postponement. 

“It is the right decision,” Lani Belcher, a British canoeist and Olympic athlete, told Al Jazeera.

“Now that a formal decision has been made it allows the athletes to be able to go back to the drawing board with their coaches and support staff and really prepare properly for the Olympic Games,” she added. 

In a message to athletes, the US Olympic and Paralympic CEO Sarah Hirshland said: “My heart breaks for you, your fellow athletes around the world, our friends at Tokyo 2020, the people of Japan, and all who are impacted by this global pandemic and the decision to postpone the Tokyo Games 2020.

“This summer was supposed to be a culmination of your hard work and life’s dream, but taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do. Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely.”

On Monday, Canada became the first country to withdraw its team from the Olympic Games.

After the IOC announcement, Canada’s Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe said: “Utter relief. Excitement. Uncertainty. We’re in unprecedented times. We’ll be more ready than ever in 2021 and wearing the maple leaf with more pride than I thought possible.”

Andy Anson, CEO of British Olympic Association (BOA), expressed “profound sadness” at the postponement, but said: “In all consciousness, it is the only decision we can support, in light of the devastating impact COVID-19.”

Athletics Kenya President Jackson Tuwei said: “It is good, at least it is now clear. When things were not very clear, it was difficult to advise the athletes what to do. Sometimes when you prepare and nothing happens, it is also very demoralising.”

What’s next?

Japan had warned that putting off the Games would put its $12bn investment at risk.

Organisers will now have to figure out how to keep things running for another year while making sure venues are up to date for another 12 months.

Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the organising committee, said he still has not worked out how much the delay will cost or who will pay. 

“A lot can happen in one year, so we have to think about what we have to do,” he said. “The decision came upon us all of a sudden.”

In its statement, the IOC said it would keep the same name for next year’s event: “Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”

In a crowded sporting calendar, which will be making up for this year’s cancellations, World Athletics said it was willing to move its world championships, scheduled for August 6-15, 2021, in Oregon, to clear a path for the Olympic Games.

The exact dates for the month-long Games have yet to be announced. 

“It’s unclear whether the Olympics are going to be held in that exact slot of 2020 moved forward a year,” said Al Jazeera’s Wellings.

“There’s also a chance it may be moved forward and be called a cherry blossom Games in spring.”

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UK closes down, WHO warns pandemic 'accelerating': Live updates

British prime minister tells people to ‘stay at home’, as Europe reels from pandemic WHO says is accelerating.

The British government has announced strict controls on movement, telling people to stay at home in a lockdown that will be enforced by the police.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the plan in a rare televised address to the nation, after an additional 52 people in the country died from the virus.

“From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction, you must stay at home,” he said.

The British move follows the imposition of strict lockdowns in France, Spain, and Italy, and slightly looser restrictions elsewhere, as Europe reels from a pandemic that the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned is accelerating.

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  • What happens if you catch the new coronavirus?

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday noted that while it took 67 days for cases to reach the 100,000 mark globally, it took only 11 for cases to reach 200,000 and just four to reach 300,000.

More than 6,000 Italians have now died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, nearly double the confirmed number of deaths in China where the virus first emerged late last year.

In the United States, the number of cases surged past 35,000, as the death toll rose to 495.

Nearly 16,500 people have died from COVID-19 about the world, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. Nearly 101,000 of the 379,000 people who have been diagnosed with the disease have recovered.

I’m Kate Mayberry in Kuala Lumpur with Al Jazeera’s continuing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are the latest updates:

Tuesday, March 24

02:10 GMT – Thailand reports second death, cabinet to meet

Thailand’s cabinet is due to meet to discuss its coronavirus response after a second person died from COVID-19.

The country has 721 cases of infection.

A press conference will be held at 10.00am (03:00 GMT) and the government will consider more measures to address the outbreak later on Tuesday.

02:05 GMT – China says only imported cases, but questions asked over reporting criteria

Caixin Global, a financial news agency in China, continues to raise questions about the way in which China is counting its coronavirus cases. 

It spoke to an official in Wuhan, where the disease first originated, who says those who have the virus but have no symptoms are left out of the figures.

As of Sunday, Hubei province said it had zero new “confirmed cases” for four days. However, a member of a disease prevention team said Wuhan continues to find cases every day, but they’re left out of the public figures as the patients show no symptoms https://t.co/GlYbOqJKJb

01:55 GMT – South Korea cases continue downward trend

More encouraging signs from South Korea.

It has just reported 76 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, the 13th day in a row that is has posted new infections of 100 or less.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) says total infections rose to 9,037. Two more people were confirmed dead bringing the death toll to 120.

01:40 GMT – Myanmar reports first confirmed cases of coronavirus

Myanmar has reported its first confirmed cases of coronavirus.

The health ministry said late on Monday that a 36-year-old travelling from the United States and 26-year-old returning from Britain, both Myanmar nationals, had tested positive.

“Investigation is ongoing on history of people who have been in contact with these two patients,” it said in a statement.

The Southeast Asian nation shares a long and porous border with China.

 

01:35 GMT – Cuba bans all citizens from leaving

Cuba is the latest to impose a lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus – banning Cubans from leaving the country, closing schools and suspending inter-regional public transport.

Last Friday foreign tourists were barred from entering the country. 

Cuba has so far confirmed 40 cases

01:30 GMT – US says Tokyo Olympics should be postponed

More pressure on Japan to postpone the Summer Olympics with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee the latest to say the 2020 game should be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The committee says it surveyed some 4,000 of its athletes over the weekend and 65 percent of those who responded indicated their training had been severely affected or halted entirely due to virus-related restrictions.

“It’s more clear than ever that the path toward postponement is the most promising,” USOPC board chair Susanne Lyons and CEO Sarah Hirshland said in a statement.

00:15 GMT – New Zealand reports 40 new cases

New Zealand on Tuesday confirmed 40 new cases of coronavirus, taking the number of confirmed and possible cases in the country to 155.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said six people were in hospital and in a stable condition. Four cases are being seen as community transmission, he said.

00:00 GMT – Astronauts in quarantine before ISS mission

Two Russian cosmonauts and a US astronaut are spending their final weeks on Earth in quarantine before their April 9 mission to the International Space Station.

The Expedition 63 crew will launch from Kazakhstan without the usual ceremonies to mark the occasion and will spend six months at the ISS.

“We are ready to go, we are healthy, we’ve been tested very well with the medical teams,” the US astronaut Chris Cassidy said on Monday in a video from quarantine.

For all the updates from yesterday (March 23) please click here.


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