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White House Projects Up to 240,000 U.S. Coronavirus Deaths

U.S. President Donald Trump admits that the country is in for “a very, very painful two weeks” as death projections hit home.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A ventilator and other hospital equipment is seen in an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park on March 30, 2020 in New York City.
A ventilator and other hospital equipment is seen in an emergency field hospital to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic in Central Park on March 30, 2020 in New York City. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: White House projects 100,000 to 240,000 COVID-19 deaths, Pompeo releases a Venezuela plan, and the Taliban prepares for prisoner exchanges.

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White House Projects Up to 240,000 Deaths

The coronavirus death toll in the United States—now over 4,000—has eclipsed the number killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. According to projections shared during a White House briefing on Tuesday evening, the eventual death toll could equal the number of Americans killed in the Korean War and Vietnam War combined—if it is on the most optimistic end of the current estimates.

If current social distancing trends hold, the White House estimates that 100,000 to 240,000 deaths are possible in the United States. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease specialist, said the figures are what “we need to anticipate, but that doesn’t mean that that’s what we’re going to accept … Our hope is to get that down as much as we can,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who on Feb. 28 told a New Hampshire rally “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” has changed his tune. As April begins, he is telling Americans the worst of the pandemic is still to come, “This is going to be a very, very painful two weeks,” he said.

How does the U.S. compare on testing? With 1,048,971 tests conducted to date, according to the COVID Tracking Project, the United States has tested more people than any other nation. The devil is in the details, however, as the United States still lags behind countries like South Korea, which has tested a far higher proportion of its population. South Korea has tested 7,965 people per million residents, whereas the United States has tested less than half that number so far.

Do experts agree with the White House numbers? A survey of 20 public health experts and epidemiologists conducted by Thomas McAndrew at the University of Massachusetts Amherst largely tracks with the White House projections. In the survey published on March 25, the experts estimated an average projection of 245,000 deaths from COVID-19 by the end of the year. They also predicted the number would likely peak in either April or May.

How do these projections compare to previous pandemics? The most recent example is so-called Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States suffered an estimated 675,000 deaths in the 1918 flu pandemic.

What We’re Following Today

U.S. unveils Venezuela transition plan. Fourteen months after backing Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s new president, the United States has a new plan for the country. Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a “democratic transition framework” for Venezuela that would involve lifting economic sanctions and both Nicolás Maduro and Guaido stepping aside in favor of a new five-member governing council, the majority of whom would be chosen by the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Although the U.S. government is pushing the plan, any changes would first need the support of the Venezuelan government’s major partners: China, Russia, and Cuba. Reacting to the U.S. proposal, Venezuela’s foreign ministry called it “an effort to win geopolitical advantage in the midst of a frightening global pandemic.”

Pompeo doesn’t rule out Iran sanctions relief. After weeks of adding ever more sanctions on Iran, Mike Pompeo gave the slightest signal that a shift in policy could be possible. Asked at a press conference whether he would reevaluate his position on Iran sanctions, he replied “We evaluate all of our policies constantly, so the answer is—would we ever rethink? Of course.” Writing in Foreign Policy Mark Dubowitz and Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argue that Iran’s coronavirus epidemic is no reason to lift sanctions.

Hilal Elver, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food called for sanctions to be lifted on nations that have become even more vulnerable during the coronavirus outbreak, “The continued imposition of crippling economic sanctions on Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and, to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe, to name the most prominent instances, severely undermines the ordinary citizens’ fundamental right to sufficient and adequate food,” she said.

Taliban prepares for prisoner exchanges. After a long process filled with false starts and violence, the prisoner exchange so vital to peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban is set to begin. A three-member team arrived in Kabul yesterday to “help the process of the prisoners’ release” according to a Taliban spokesman. “They are here now and we will begin our discussion; the prisoner release might go ahead in a few days if everything goes as planned,” a senior Afghan government official told Reuters. The news comes as Afghan opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah appeared to give his blessing to an Afghan government negotiating team ahead of talks.

Keep an Eye On

Ethiopia postpones elections. Ethiopia has postponed its parliamentary and presidential elections, originally scheduled for August of this year. The move was taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s electoral commission said they will set a new date once the crisis had subsided. Regional opposition parties have accepted the move, according to Reuters.

Mask wearing gains steam. The city of Jena has become the first German city to mandate mask wearing for shoppers and those using public transportation. Jena follows the lead of Austria, which now requires residents to wear masks while grocery shopping. Asked whether Germany would soon follow Austria’s example, German Health Minister Olaf Scholz said his priority was for health workers to have sufficient masks first.

Amazon under fire. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for an investigation following the firing of an Amazon facility worker who led a walkout on Monday. Amazon workers have demanded more protections and safety precautions after reports of employees working at facilities while infected with coronavirus surfaced. Earlier this month in Foreign Policy, James Bloodworth wrote about the growing power of Amazon as its workers began to push back against its workplace practices.

World Bank issues poverty warning. The World Bank has warned that the coronavirus pandemic will prevent almost 24 million people from escaping poverty in East Asia and the Pacific, citing slowing economic growth rates and the impact on tourism-dependent economies. In its baseline scenario, the World Bank predicted a 2.1 percent growth rate for the region.

Odds and Ends

There is very little good news around in a pandemic, but the resilience of nature can provide us with some respite if not hope. In Llandudno, Wales, a herd of wild goats has benefited from the absence of people on the streets of the town and migrated from their usual territory in the hills above to graze in Llandudno’s parks, churchyards, and garden hedges. Andrew Stuart, the journalist who first spotted the herd, summed up the new reality, “Llandudno is run by goats.”

That’s it for today.

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