Morning Brief

U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Passes 50,000—Doubling Over Past Two Weeks

As the end of April approaches, new cases have yet to fall—and testing has yet to ramp up.

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in the daily briefing of the coronavirus task force at the White House on April 23.
U.S. President Donald Trump participates in the daily briefing of the coronavirus task force at the White House on April 23. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The U.S. coronavirus death toll passes 50,000, Denmark reacts to U.S. aid to Greenland, and countries adjust their lockdowns as Ramadan begins.

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U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Pass 50,000

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has doubled over the past two weeks, reaching over 50,000 deaths last night. While states like Utah, Tennessee, and Georgia move to ease lockdown restrictions in an attempt to stimulate their shuttered economies, the number of new cases being recorded daily has yet to drop—there has yet to be a day this month where new cases have gone below 25,000 per day.

“Without knowing, without testing, it’s like moving blindfolded,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on March 30. As the month of April draws to a close, testing has yet to ramp up to the levels experts say would give an accurate picture of the spread of the coronavirus. The WHO observes that in countries with aggressive testing regimens, the ratio of negative to positive tests should be about 10:1—or fewer than 10 percent positive. In New York, the state hit worst in the U.S. epidemic, 25 percent of tests came back positive in the most recent daily figures, falling far short of the recommended ratio.

At a White House briefing yesterday U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to suggest injecting disinfectant could be a cure for the coronavirus, “it’d be interesting to check that,” he said. The comment was widely condemned as dangerous and potentially deadly by medical professionals.

Why hasn’t the U.S. increased testing? Testing labs have lamented limited federal funding, a problem that could be helped by the $25 billion going toward testing in the $484 billion coronavirus aid package that just passed the U.S. House of Representatives. Politico lists the other factors holding the United States back, including international competition and poor coordination between hospitals, labs, and public officials.

How much worse is the U.S. death rate likely to get? A survey of infectious 21 disease modeling experts and researchers by Thomas McAndrew and Nicholas Reich at the University of Massachusetts Amherst makes for sobering reading. The experts predict the U.S. death rate to increase to approximately 70,000 by May 9, and to reach 150,000 deaths by the end of the year.


What We’re Following Today

U.S. aid to Greenland irks Danes. The United States increased its engagement with Greenland by granting the island $12 million toward education and energy projects and by announcing it would open a consulate. The island, which is an autonomous Danish territory, is strategically significant to the United States as it competes for Arctic dominance with Russia and China and already includes a U.S. ballistic missile early warning system.

Denmark’s Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod welcomed the investment, “I think it’s encouraging that it is the United States, a neighbor and close ally, who is making this grant,” he said. Karsten Honge, a member of the opposition in Denmark’s parliament, was less pleased, “They have clearly crossed the line,” he said. “It’s completely unheard of that a close ally tries to create division between Greenland and Denmark this way.”

Trump famously proposed purchasing Greenland from Denmark last year. If the funds are intended to butter up Greenlanders ahead of a potential purchase, the United States will have to up the ante: Denmark’s annual block grant to the territory, which constitutes two-thirds of Greenland’s budget, amounts to $520 million annually. 

Countries adjust lockdowns for Ramadan. As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, nations across the Middle East have eased curfews imposed to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In Algeria, a full lockdown in one province will be replaced with a curfew starting in the afternoon, while other provinces have enacted shorter curfew times. Saudi Arabia has shifted its curfew time in some cities, too; the cities of Mecca and Medina will remain in total lockdown, however. Writing in FP, Geneive Abdo looks at how fasting for the month of Ramadan, one of the five sacred pillars of Islam, is being reconsidered in light of the coronavirus epidemic.

Potential antiviral drug reportedly fails in trial. Remdesivir, an antiviral drug hoped to become a breakthrough in coronavirus treatment, has failed its first randomized clinical trial according to a World Health Organization document accidentally uploaded on Thursday. The document summary said the drug was “not associated with clinical or virological benefits,” and that during the trial, a higher proportion of patients had died taking the drug than those assigned a placebo.

Gilead Sciences, the company that makes remdesivir, disputed the document, with a spokesperson saying it included “inappropriate” characterizations of the results. The spokesperson continued, “The study results are inconclusive, though trends in the data suggest a potential benefit for remdesivir, particularly among patients treated early in disease.” A study conducted on severe coronavirus patients in a hospital in Chicago had shown early promise for the drug, although that study did not include a placebo.


Keep an Eye On

UN warns of human rights decline. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has warned of a global decline in human rights following the coronavirus pandemic, as nations begin to use the crisis as an excuse to crack down on dissent and minorities. “The virus is having a disproportionate impact on certain communities through the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy handed security responses undermining the health response,” Gutteres said at the launch of a UN report on COVID-19 and human rights.

Writing in FP on March 30, Florian Bieber examined the rise of authoritarian measures in both democracies and dictatorships to combat coronavirus. He offered a roadmap for keeping rulers in check, “any infringement on civil liberties must be temporary and proportional,” he argued. “Crucially, emergency measures need to have a clearly defined time frame to avoid leading into a permanent state of emergency.”

WTO highlights PPE protectionism. The World Trade Organization has highlighted the collective action problem facing the world when it comes to acquiring personal protective equipment (PPE) to assist health workers treating coronavirus patients. A new report from the organization found 80 countries—72 of which are WTO members—have either banned or limited the export of PPE to address shortages in their own countries. Of the 72, only 13 countries notified the WTO as is required by the group’s regulations.

“While the introduction of export-restrictive measures is understandable, the lack of international cooperation in these areas risks cutting off import-reliant countries from desperately needed medical products and triggering a supply shock,” the report said. “And by interfering with established medical supply chains, such measures also risk hampering the urgently required supply response.”


Odds and Ends

Ballooning in size after years in self-isolation, a Tasmanian sheep is likely to become an icon for those worried about the changes staying at home may have on their bodies. The sheep, named Prickles, has recently returned to the farm it was lambed from after fleeing from a bushfire in 2013. Prickles has not been sheared once in that time, meaning the sheep is now five times the size of its fellows in the flock. “She is absolutely round,” Farmer Alice Gray told Australian radio. “She’s a great big fluffy ball of wool.”

Gray is planning to livestream Prickles’ impending shearing, and plans to give viewers a chance to bet on the overall weight of the sheared wool. Gray will donate the proceeds to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help refugees affected by COVID-19.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com.

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

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