Covid-19 wrap | NGOs express anger at UN Security Council, Africa earns praise for coronavirus response, stores open in Canada, and South Korea children head back to school

2020-05-20 08:55

Here are the latest developments in the coronavirus crisis.

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Leading NGOs blast UN over virus pandemic inaction

Leading non-governmental organizations on Tuesday blasted the UN Security Council's "shameful" inaction toward the Covid-19 crisis, especially over a call for truces in some conflict zones during the pandemic.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for ceasefires in fighting around the world two months ago.

But the Security Council - debilitated by a confrontation between China and the United States - has failed to agree on a resolution supporting the initiative in the conflicts which fall under its mandate, the NGOs said in a statement.

"The paralysis of the Security Council in the face of Covid is shameful. To millions of people, it is also incomprehensible," said David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

For Rob Malley, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, Washington and Beijing "have treated these negotiations as an opportunity for a blame-game over the origins of Covid-19 rather than an opening to make a straightforward call for a reduction in violence during the pandemic".

Neither country "seems able or willing to show leadership at the UN during a global crisis", Malley said.

Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children, said the Security Council "has a historic opportunity to stop the fighting globally and to ensure aid workers have full access to those most in need".

Security Council negotiations have been at an impasse since 8 May, when Washington rejected compromise text proposed by France and Tunisia which would urge a halt to fighting in countries like Afghanistan and Yemen.

The US is rejecting any mention of the World Health Organisation in the resolution, while China has threatened to veto any resolution that does not reference the WHO.

Guterres' wider call has the support of 200 NGOs and individually some 140 countries of the 193 UN members.


Canada stores start reopening after Covid-19 lockdown

In Ottawa's ByWard Market neighbourhood, shopkeepers were busy readying for an influx of shoppers, dusting off wares and adjusting to new rules.

"I'm smiling behind the mask," declares the owner of a clothing store in the popular outdoor market, which was permitted to reopen Tuesday along with many shops across Canada as authorities began easing a two-month lockdown.

Ontario - Canada's most populous province - is allowing stores with street access to reopen, along with hospital surgery rooms, dog parks and golf courses.

Pat Phythian, owner of Ottawa clothing store Frou Frou, said she was "eager to get back to work" after two months off.

The lockdown was "so boring," she said.

Like others, Phythian also took a financial hit over the temporary closure of her store.

But, she added, "I just really missed the people."

Each of Canada's 13 provinces and territories is lifting restrictions at different paces and to varying degrees.

British Columbia allowed restaurants and pubs to reopen on Tuesday, for example, while Saskatchewan went further, giving the greenlight to shopping malls, barbers and farmers' markets.

Hardest-hit by the pandemic, Quebec's largest city Montreal won't allow retailers to open until next week. The province has recorded nearly half of all 80 000 Covid-19 cases and 6 000 deaths in Canada.


Brazil surpasses 1 000 coronavirus deaths in 24 hours

Brazil registered 1 179 coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours, the health ministry said on Tuesday, as the pandemic exacted its worst daily toll yet in the hardest-hit Latin American country.

The overall death toll in Brazil now stands at 17 971, the ministry said.

This was the first time the daily toll exceeded 1 000.

New infections in the past 24 hours totalled 17 408, bringing the total to 271 628.


US borders with Canada, Mexico closed another month

The US government on Tuesday extended for another month restrictions on non-essential travel across the borders with Canada and Mexico to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The US Department of Homeland Security said the closure, first ordered on 20 March and due to expire on Wednesday, will be extended until 22 June and reviewed every 30 days.

"Non-essential travel will not be permitted until this administration is convinced that doing so is safe and secure," said interim DHS chief Chad Wolf.

"We have been in contact with our Canadian and Mexican counterparts and they also agree that extending these restrictions is prudent at this time. We appreciate our partnership with Mexico and Canada in ensuring that North America is working together to combat the ongoing global pandemic," he said.

The United States recorded another 1 536 coronavirus deaths over the past 24 hours, the Johns Hopkins University tracker said.

That figure, tallied as of 20:30 (00:30 GMT), raises to 91 845 the total number of Covid-19 deaths in the US.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced earlier that the Canada-US border will remain closed to all non-essential travel for another month, until 21 June to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

The world's longest international frontier at 8 900km was closed to travellers on 21 March, but trade in goods has continued.

The prime minister also left open the possibility of further extensions. "We will continue to watch carefully what's happening elsewhere in the world and around us as we make decisions on next steps," he said.

Mexico shares a 3 100km border, and travel limitations have been in place since 20 March. As in the Canadian case, trade in goods continues.


UN chief Guterres praises African efforts to stem virus

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday that the developed world could learn lessons from the preventative measures taken by many African countries to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

"Covid-19 has made much slower progress (in Africa) than the predictions that were made at the beginning" of the crisis, Guterres said in an interview with RFL radio in France.

This has been largely thanks to the fact that "most African governments and organisations took in time very brave prevention measures which provide a lesson for some developed nations that did not," he added.

There have been fewer than 3 000 Covid-19 deaths from 88 000 cases of the disease registered throughout the African continent, relatively low numbers compared to over 320 000 deaths worldwide.

Guterres also called for a more regularised easing of debt repayments for the poorest countries.

Last month, G20 and Paris Club creditor nations agreed to waive most debt payments for the world's poorest countries in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus crisis, but Guterres called this move "insufficient".


Schools reopen in South Korea as virus fears ease

Hundreds of thousands of South Korean students returned to school on Wednesday as educational establishments started reopening after a coronavirus delay of more than two months.

Students lined up for temperature checks and were given sanitisers to wash their hands as they entered school premises while teachers greeted them with smiles and occasional elbow bumps.

"It's really exciting to meet my friends and teachers face to face, but we have to strictly follow the disinfection guidelines," said Oh Chang-hwa, student president of Kyungbock High School in Seoul.

"I am very worried but it's still nice to see them again," Oh said.

South Korea endured one of the worst early outbreaks of the virus - at one point the second-worst hit nation after mainland China - prompting officials to delay the reopening of schools in early March.

But it appears to have brought its outbreak under control thanks to an extensive "trace, test and treat" programme.

Around 440 000 final-year students, who will in December take the university entrance exam that is crucial in the education-obsessed country, are the first to return to schools, with other years following in stages over the next several weeks.

Inside the school buildings, students are asked to wipe their desks and sit apart according to social distancing guidelines, with some classes setting up partitions between desks.


France looks past Google, Apple for virus contact tracing

France, which has long been sceptical of the growing power of US tech titans, is seeking to bypass Apple and Google for a smartphone app to help trace people infected with the novel coronavirus.

The move, which leaves France relatively isolated in Europe alongside Britain and Norway, reflects differences on how such apps should be structured, who has access to sensitive data and their effectiveness.

A number of countries have already deployed "contact tracing" apps on smartphones that track a person's contacts and alert them if need be, generating vital information to help contain outbreaks and slow the spread of the virus as nations ease lockdowns and get back to work.

These apps can be based either on a decentralised or centralised architecture.

A decentralised architecture keeps the information about whom a person has been in contact with on the smartphone.

If the person declares themselves to have been infected by the coronavirus, then those people deemed to have been in close contact for an extended period receive a notification to isolate themselves and get tested.

In a centralised system the data is managed by an authority, say a national health service, that would have access to the data to ensure those who are exposed are indeed following the proper health and isolation recommendations.

Apple and Google banded together last month to develop coronavirus contact tracing technology that would work across their operating systems.

The technology, set to be released later this month, embraces a decentralised architecture that would enable smartphone users to control their own data, and choose whether to notify the authorities if they have been exposed.

Numerous tech experts and privacy advocates prefer a decentralised option because of data privacy concerns, worried about governments establishing databases that could be used for surveillance, even after the pandemic.

But France, along with London, contest that argument and prefer a centralised architecture that will provide them with the information needed to ensure the spread of the disease is effectively contained.

Norway also opted for a centralised system for its "Smittestop" or "stop infection" app launched last month.

Being dependent on Apple and Google means "staying in an extremely restrictive framework for usage" of the data, said a source close to France's contract tracing effort.


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Read more on:    un  |  south korea  |  us  |  canada  |  france  |  brazil  |  coronavirus

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