Virus Outbreak Mideast Israel Democracy

Large gathering protests Israel's restrictions on large gatherings

Israeli police officers scuffle with a man during a protest outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, Thursday, March 19, 2020. Hundreds of people defied restrictions on large gatherings to protest outside parliament Thursday, while scores of others were blocked by police from reaching the area as they accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government of exploiting the coronavirus crisis to solidify his power and undermine Israel's democratic foundations. 

Italian death toll overtakes China’s as virus spreads

ROME (AP) — The death toll in Italy from the coronavirus overtook China’s on Thursday, and infections in the United States climbed past 10,000, in a stark illustration of how the crisis has pivoted toward the West.

Italy, with a population of 60 million, recorded at least 3,405 deaths, or roughly 150 more than in China — a country with a population over 20 times larger.

Italy reached the bleak milestone the same day that Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus first emerged three months ago, recorded no new infections, a sign that the communist country’s draconian lockdowns were effective in containing the scourge.

On Thursday, a visiting Chinese Red Cross team criticized Italians’ failure to properly quarantine themselves and take the national lockdown seriously.

The virus appeared to be opening an alarming new front in Africa and also reached at least one European head of state: 62-year-old Prince Albert II of the tiny principality of Monaco. The palace announced that he tested positive but was continuing to work from his office and was being treated by doctors from Princess Grace Hospital, named after his American actress mother.

European experts accuse Russia of fake virus news

BRUSSELS (AP) — Russian state media and news outlets supporting President Vladimir Putin are waging a fake news campaign aimed at undermining public confidence in the ability of European health care systems to cope with the coronavirus, according to a European Union analysis.

The report, seen by The Associated Press, said that EU experts noted nearly 80 instances of virus-related disinformation in about the last two months, including claims that the COVID-19 virus was a Western-made biological weapon.

“The campaign is designed to exacerbate confusion, panic, and fear, and to prevent people from accessing reliable information about the virus and public safety provisions,” states the report, which was compiled by the EU communications division assigned to countering false information.

The EU experts pointed the finger at news outlets Russia Today, Sputnik, Oriental Review, Geopolitica and others. As examples of false reports, they cited stories saying COVID-19 was less harmful than the flu, developed by the United States, brought into Europe by migrants or exacerbated by taking ibuprofen to relieve symptoms.

Disinformation experts say Russia has steadily chipped away at the European Union’s image since 2014 by supporting far-right and anti-European political parties, and also by attacking the integrity of mainstream media. The fast-spreading virus could offer a new avenue to do that.

Four times as many internet searches about the virus were taking place in March than at the end of January, and twice as many are being done now compared to the end of last month, the EU report said. Social media and digital monitors estimate the coronavirus was mentioned 115 million times online between Jan. 1 and March 12.

The report, by the EU’s Strategic Communications division, said that RT Spanish is the 12th most popular source of coronavirus-related content across many languages, including English, Spanish, Russia, Italian and Arabic, beating out even major international news outlets.

Messages in Spanish were aimed at people in Europe and Latin America to “advance apocalyptic stories, blame capitalists for trying to benefit from the virus, and emphasize how well Russia and Putin are dealing with the outbreak,” the report states.

Russia has confirmed a total of 199 virus cases. However, many health experts predict the number to much higher, with infections going undetected since testing for the new virus is not widespread.

UN chief: World at war, recession near certain

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday the world “is at war with a virus” and warned that “a global recession — perhaps of record dimensions — is a near certainty.”

The U.N. chief said “people are suffering, sick and scared” and stressed that current responses by individual countries will not address “the global scale and complexity of the crisis.”

“This is a moment that demands coordinated, decisive, and innovative policy action from the world’s leading economies,” Guterres told reporters from U.N. headquarters in New York. “We must recognize that the poorest countries and most vulnerable — especially women — will be the hardest hit.”

The secretary-general welcomed next week’s emergency summit of leaders of the Group of 20 major economic powers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he will participate with the message that this is an unprecedented situation which requires creativity — “and the magnitude of the response must match its scale.”

“COVID-19 is killing people, as well as attacking the real economy at its core – trade, supply chains, businesses, jobs,” Guterres said. “Entire countries and cities are in lock down. Borders are closing. Companies are struggling to stay in business and families are simply struggling to stay afloat.”

The International Labor Organization just reported that workers around the world could lose as much as $3.4 trillion in income by the end of this year, he said.

The secretary-general said world leaders have the opportunity to steer the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic “toward a more sustainable and inclusive path.”

“But poorly coordinated policies risk locking in — or even worsening — already unsustainable inequalities, reversing hard-won development gains and poverty reduction,” he warned.

Guterres called for global action to tackle the health emergency, the social impact of the pandemic, and the economic response and recovery.

“If we let the virus spread like wildfire – especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world — it would kill millions of people,” he said.

“And we need to immediately move away from a situation where each country is undertaking its own health strategies to one that ensures, in full transparency, a coordinated global response, including helping countries that are less prepared to tackle the crisis,” Guterres said.