Coronavirus Government Global Briefing: April 16

By Chris Woods

April 16, 2020

Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Mapping the spread of COVID-19 in the best-tested country on earth

On Tuesday 14 April, scientists at deCODE genetics and colleagues at Iceland’s Directorate of Health and the National University Hospital published a study of the early spread of COVID-19 in a population with “a cohesive public health response” in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers tested a total 6% of Iceland’s 360,000 residents:

  • 10,797 members of the public through open invitation (with 87, or 0.8%, testing positive);
  • 2283 members of the public through random invitations (with 13, or 0.6%, testing positive); and
  • 9199 people who were recruited for targeted testing (with 1221, or 13.3%, testing positve).

According to PRNewswire, the study found that roughly 0.8% of the population at large is infected with several strains or clades of the virus, “supporting the concern that silent carriers spread the disease”, and suggesting that, while public health efforts have been effective, “more data, including massive population screening, will be key to informing efforts to contain the virus in Iceland in the long run”.

In pursuing public screenings as opposed to just symptomatic tests, deCODE last month helped Iceland’s government claim the highest testing rates in the world.

However, as The New York Times reported on 9 April, the country attracted some criticism for pursuing the “test everybody” goal while keeping some schools running, implementing social-distancing measures later than comparable countries, and rejecting tourist bans.

Iceland’s government, for its part, argued new cases had peaked, and a glance at their trajectory of 1,727 confirmed cases — which includes just eight deaths and a fall in daily cases from over 100 in late March to less than 15 every day this week — would, at the time of writing, support that assertion. For more, on the NEJM study, check out their video explainer, below.

Research wrap

In some other recent research highlights:

  • A WHO spokesperson reports that, despite isolated improvements, 90% of overall global outbreaks are currently registered in Europe and America, neither of which have peaked yet (AA).
  • A report published by Iran’s parliament research centre yesterday claims that, due to undercounting and low testing rates, the country’s real death toll is likely to be double the official count — as the Associated Press notes, the report also acts as a warning that efforts to slowly reopen the country could risk a second surge.
  • The Conversation outlines how different kinds of compromised immune systems increase the risk of coronavirus, and, further, how that definition includes smokers.
  •  Science reports that, even amongst those who have recovered from the virus, the experience of having been on a ventilator may risk long-term disability and illness, amongst other potential consequences.
  • Croakey explains why, frustratingly, so many policy decisions rest on if/when we are able to develop effective vaccines and/or treatments.
  • The Brisbane Times reports that QUT researchers have perfected a method of turning sugar cane waste into face masks.
  • Wired explores how the pandemic both forced people to redefine their relationships with space and, on the flip-side, creates an opportunity to remake cities.

Unpacking America, and Australia’s, problems with WHO

As America’s cases surged past 600,000 yesterday, and deaths past 26,000, Donald Trump announced the US will look to suspend funding to the World Health Organisation pending a 60- to 90-day investigation into the body.

As Time reports, Trump’s announcement has been condemned by global and scientific bodies — UN Secretary General António Guterres argued against pulling resources of a humanitarian body mid-pandemic, while The Lancet’s editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, flat-out called it a “crime against humanity” and riddled with contradictions — for example, Science reports that the president argued the WHO should have declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern earlier than January 30 but he himself did not announce lockdown measures in America until mid-March.

There’s also the fact that Congress, not Trump, mandates funding for international bodies — although the White House has previously exploited constitutional loopholes such as sanctions or funding diversions — and that the president would not clarify how much, if any, money will actually be frozen.

However, both publications notes that Trump’s decision to suspend funding for the WHO also refers to legitimate criticisms of the organisation.

For example, Trump claimed that WHO spread “disinformation” from China, and, at the outset, the body has relied largely on official statements on rather than information from whistleblowers such as Dr. Li Wenliang. WHO has also advised countries not to close borders, and acquiesced to China’s demand to censor information in Taiwan.

Still, as Al Jazeera reports, Trump’s move nonetheless attracted global criticism, not least because WHO is currently involved in supporting testing and medical efforts in low and middle-income countries; his announcement even coincided with the organisation’s first “solidarity flight”, complete with medical supplies, from Ethiopia to other African countries.

Australia takes aim at wet markets

In response to the brewing Trump-WHO conflict, Scott Morrison has promised to maintain financial support for the WHO — which currently operates with an already-shoestring annual budget of US$2.2 billion — but, along with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, criticised the body for allegedly supporting the reopening of China’s wet markets, and will continue to lobby the country for more “transparency” as markets reopen.

This follows some confusion over statements from the WHO; on Tuesday, The Australian reported that the Western Pacific regional headquarters did not support the closure of the markets “because they are a source of livelihood and food security to many people” and that, with proper regulation, regulation, facilities and hygiene practices “it is possible to have safe food sold in wet markets”.

However, as The Sydney Morning Herald reports, WHO special envoy on COVID-19 later that day urged countries to shut down “dangerous” elements of wet markets — specifically the live animal trade — and stressed that WHO has no power over member countries at any rate. Further, Spokesman Tarik Jasarevic later clarified that:

Reports in some media claiming that WHO ‘backs’ or ‘has approved’ the reopening of wet markets in China are not correct.

On the China-America relationship and response

On a related note, it should come as no surprise to see a slew of critiques of China-America relations and responses:

  • Over in The New Republic as both a print story and podcast, science journalist Laurie Garrett outlines how Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping each created devastating consequences through delayed action.
  • Similarly, Foreign Affairs outlines how countries are pushing back against China’s propaganda, but the pandemic undermine’s America’s leadership.
  • An analysis at New York’s Intelligencer argues that, in spite of attempts to blame China and bring Joe Biden into the debate — including a false allegation that his Democratic rival opposed a travel ban — Trump has maintained strong ties both personally, making millions from Chinese firms throughout his time as president, and politically, as The New York Times revealed that wariness of the relationship played a crucial role in Trump’s initial denial of the pandemic.
  • Finally, The East Asia Forum’s Editorial Board argued last week that the crisis has reinforced the most dangerous dimensions of US–China rivalry, from the US’ failure of leadership to China’s capable but flawed and self-concerned Communist Party to the enormous costs countries stand to face from economic decoupling.

Legal guide to JobKeeper

Finally, in something you may want to add to your bookmarks, Sydney barristers Ian Neil SC, David Chin SC and Christopher Parkin have written a 58-page ‘Guide to the JobKeeper Scheme‘.

The team, which will also present a webinar the week beginning 20 April 2020 with the Australian Labour Law Association on the scheme, has unpacked the recently-passed legislation and detail everything from employee and eligibility to the various obligations, protections and temporary amendments under the Fair Work Act.

For health department updates: Federal, NSW, Victoria, QueenslandACTSouth AustraliaTasmaniaNorthern Territory and Western Australia.

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