Morning Brief

Will Trump End the Lockdown?

Spooked by a slowing economy, the Trump administration is growing impatient with public health experts.

White House Coronavirus Task Force Holds Daily Briefing

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The White House weighs easing social distancing restrictions, the U.K. government announces a lockdown, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are likely to be postponed.

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Trump Weighs Rollback of Lockdown Measures as Economy Worsens

At a White House briefing yesterday, U.S. President Donald Trump said that normal economic activity would resume in weeks, not months. “Our country was not built to be shut down,” Trump said, “This is not a country that was built for this. It was not built to be shut down.”

His comments highlighted the growing friction between public health experts keen to halt the spread of the coronavirus and White House advisors who see the economy as the priority. “The president is right. The cure can’t be worse than the disease,” Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council said on Fox News on Monday, “And we’re going to have to make some difficult trade-offs.”

Asked at the briefing whether Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, agreed on the primacy of restarting the economy, Trump replied, “He doesn’t not agree.”

Who else wants to ease restrictions? Such sentiments are not limited to the White House. There is a growing chorus among conservatives and in mainstream publications calling for a rethink: on Friday the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial titled “Rethinking the Coronavirus Shutdown” and over the weekend two pieces in the New York Times, one by columnist Thomas Friedman and one by David Katz, the director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, raised similar questions.

The United States is only a little over one week into its 15-day social distancing period recommended by public health experts. Since the recommendations were announced on March 16, cases of COVID-19 have jumped from around 6,400 cases to 42,817 cases according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University. On Monday, for the first time, more than 100 coronavirus-related deaths were reported in the United States.

Would ending lockdowns be safe? The case of Hong Kong provides an example of when easing restrictions can have adverse effects. On March 2, Hong Kong’s civil servants returned to their workplaces after weeks working from home only for the virus to come roaring back. Strict quarantine measures soon returned as the number of cases since the initial rollback doubled.

Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine, argues that those advocating the end of strict social distancing have “very little public health experience and are not thinking in broader economic terms. The costs of an unfettered epidemic would be massive for the United States,” he told FP. “The idea that we can isolate the sick or the old and high-risk away from the general population is not credible: we don’t have a social safety net to take care of all those people,” he added.

Gonsalves also took aim at the two columns in the New York Times mentioned above.“The authors did one of the worst things you can do in an epidemic: They told people what they wanted to hear…This knee-jerk short termism is the best thing to help the virus roar back and for a disaster down the road.”

What We’re Following Today

Johnson orders lockdown. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered citizens to stay in their homes as Britain becomes the latest European country to enact a lockdown. The move came a day after photos of crowded trains and packed seaside towns surfaced while the U.K. infection rate continued to climb, with nearly 1,000 new cases confirmed on Monday.

The exceptions to the lockdown include traveling to work or to care for someone, buying food and medicine, and one exercise outing per day. “That’s all—these are the only reasons you should leave your home,” Johnson said, “You should not be meeting friends. If your friends ask you to meet, you should say no.”

So far, the lockdown seems to have had no impact whatsoever when it comes to reducing risk for Londoners. On Tuesday morning, a hospital worker tweeted a picture of a packed London Underground train and called on Johnson and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to increase the number of trains or restrict ridership.

African finance ministers call for debt waiver. In a joint statement, African finance ministers called for $100 billion in stimulus to allow the continent to weather the dual storms of coronavirus and falling oil prices. The statement calls for a waiver on interest payments on public debt and sovereign bonds—a move that would free up $44 billion and “provide immediate fiscal space and liquidity to the governments in their efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the ministers said.

Bolsonaro calls out coronavirus as media trick. As Brazil’s regional governments begin to take action by locking down cities and suspending commerce, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has tried to play down the country’s epidemic. “The people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus,” Bolsonaro said in a television interview, claiming public unrest is being drummed up the media in order to oust him.

Pompeo meets Afghan leaders in Kabul. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met separately with President Ashraf Ghani and his rival and self-declared president Abdullah Abdullah in an attempt to reduce frictions between the two men. A senior State Department official said it was unclear whether a breakthrough would be made during Pompeo’s day-long visit. While Ghani and Abdullah have feuded, the Afghan government has delayed choosing a negotiating team to face the Taliban in much-anticipated peace talks.

Rouhani urges lifting of sanctions. In public remarks, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has called for the United States to lift sanctions, and said Iran would continue to reject U.S. offers of humanitarian assistance until the United States had done so. “Your help offer is the biggest lie in the history,” Rouhani said. Iran has suffered from the coronavirus the most of any country in the Middle East, with over 23,000 recorded cases—although the actual number of cases is likely to be higher according to a WHO official.

Keep an Eye On

Tokyo Olympics likely to be postponed. According to a member of the International Olympic Committee, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—set to begin in August—will be postponed. “The parameters going forward have not been determined, but the games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know,” IOC member Dick Pound told USA Today. Australia and Canada have already announced that their athletes will not compete. The 2020 games would be the first Olympics to be postponed, although World War I and World War II forced cancelations in 1916, 1940, and 1944.

UN calls for global cease-fire. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for a global cease-fire in order for countries to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. “End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world,” he said. “It starts by stopping the fighting everywhere. Now. That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”

MH17 trial delayed. The Netherlands’ trial of the four men accused of shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014 has been suspended until June. The moves comes after lawyers for one of the men accused—the only one of the four to send lawyers to the trial—said they needed more time to prepare a defense. The defendants, three Russians and one Ukrainian, face preliminary charges of murder.

Russia might delay vote. Russia may delay its constitutional referendum—which if approved would include allowing President Vladimir Putin to rule until 2036—as Russia comes to grips with its coronavirus outbreak. The daily newspaper Vedomosti reported the vote would likely be delayed from its original April 22 date to sometime in June. Speaking about a possible change, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “If the growth of the epidemiological situation gives cause to reschedule then it will be done.”

Guinea leader seeks to stay in power. The West African nation of Guinea went ahead with a controversial referendum that could give President Alpha Condé another 12 years in office past his current term limit. Voting was marred by attacks on polling stations from opposition groups with at least two people killed in the ensuing unrest. Sunday’s poll was originally scheduled for March 1, but had been delayed after international observers noted irregularities on the electoral rolls.

As Aanu Adeoye argued in Foreign Policy earlier this month, Condé is following in Putin’s footsteps. “Condé’s move is straight out of the playbook of undemocratic leaders seeking to extend their tenures by democratic means,” and the region’s rollback of hard-won democratic gains will continue unless powerful neighbors and organizations like ECOWAS and the African Union pressure leaders to leave office when their terms end.

Odds and Ends

The Czech Republic has been left red-faced after a shipment of 101,600 facemasks meant for Italy was left impounded by Czech authorities after the Red Cross of Qingtian in eastern China had sent the masks as a gift to Italy’s Chinese community. Upon discovering the mix-up, the Czech government sent 110,000 replacement facemasks, with Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek helping load the shipment himself.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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