Coronavirus ~ Global Brief: Chinese New Wave, Italian Shopping, Trump Control

In Paris on March 16
In Paris on March 16

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. The rapid, insidious path of the COVID-19 outbreak across the planet teaches us in a whole new way how small the world has become. Our network of multilingual journalists are finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world.


"Is there an end in sight?" It's the question that hangs just behind more pressing matters like emergency care and people losing their jobs. It's a question that also brings us (back) to China, where the coronavirus outbreak began late last year, and where the number of new cases and deaths has been quietly abating for the past several weeks.

But the fear in Beijing now, as reported in the state-run Global Times newspaper, is that foreign carriers of COVID-19 are starting to bring the virus back to Chinese shores. Beyond the debate over travel bans, this points to some key unanswered questions that are purely medical — and which will be weighing over the world in the coming months. Is a natural immunity created by those who have contracted the virus? Will COVID-19 come back next winter even stronger? If so, can a vaccine be created, and distributed, quickly enough? Questions for the future. Questions for right now.​​



• A rash of new restrictions is rolled out both within and between European countries, as the toll of the virus appears set to multiply in France, Germany and elsewhere, with Italy's death toll hitting new daily records and nearing the 2,000 mark (for updates, consult the World Health Organisation live map).

• Nearly $2 trillion in stock value evaporated in the first few minutes of Wall Street trading Monday, as the COVID-19 crisis continues to send fears rippling through global markets.

• The U.S. woke up to widespread new closures of schools and other public spaces, as well as to a President Trump press conference in which he declared, counter to every possible indication, medical and otherwise, that the COVID-19 outbreak is something "we have tremendous control over."


Last Kiss: French daily Libération says it in ALL CAPS on the front page of its Monday edition: In the country of l'amour, la liberté and "bises' air-kisses, the state of emergency has turned into a STATE OF RECKLESSNESS: Even after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the closing of non-essential businesses (including cafés and restaurants) on Saturday, French crowds still insisted on going out to markets and parks. In Paris like elsewhere, the only way to stop such nonchalance in the face of a grave health emergency, was ultimately to impose ever stricter regulations — which President Emmanuel Macron announced Monday night, declaring that France is "at war."


Counting Toll In Newspaper Pages: Italy offers a distressing picture of where other countries may be headed with COVID-19. And that starts, sadly, with the rising rate of deaths each day. Italian journalist David Carretta quantified the toll with an unsettling video that showed 10 pages of obituaries in L'Eco di Bergamo, the local newspaper in the northern city of Bergamo. Typically the daily death notices take up little more than a page.​

Supermarket Tips: With Italy on a strict nationwide lockdown, the Turin daily La Stampa offered tips for what to do when you go shopping to limit both the spread of the virus and any problems with fellow shoppers or the authorities:

- Go alone

- Wear gloves

- Keep 1 meter distance from other shoppers

- Only shop for essentials

- Make a list beforehand to limit time in store

- Try to limit trips to store, and go when fewer shoppers are there.

It's also a good idea, more than ever, to acknowledge the work of the people serving you at your local market, whose job requires them to come in contact with hundreds of people every day. One was quoted in La Stampa: "We're not angels like nurses, we're just supermarket cashiers and shelf-stockers. But we (too) are forced to risk our lives."​


Uberization-19: The unprecedented global health crisis is intersecting with the digital revolution's transformation of work. The Verge reports that Uber is expanding its emergency policy on sick pay for its drivers during the pandemic. The company announced this week that drivers forced off the road (those who test positive for COVID-19 or forced into quarantine or have their Uber accounts suspended because of health regulations will be eligible for up to 14 days of paid sick leave. It remains to be seen how the so-called "gig economy" will emerge from this crisis — along with the rest of the economy.​


Behind The Mask: Coronavirus is sparking a brand new fear among the younger generation in South Korea: not finding a soulmate. Spring is usually the busiest season for professional matchmakers to make love blossom between their many clients through blind dates, but business has predictably been badly hit. The Chosun Ilbo daily reports that COVID-19 is taking its toll on the romance industry not just because men and women are reluctant to meet their potential partner in person, but because when they do, the masks so many wear to protect them from the virus is seen as a big turn-off, especially by women who also don't want to have readjust their makeup because of it.​


COVIDictionary: The Asahi Shimbun reports on a new word entering the Japanese lexicon. With quarantines forcing people to share cocktail hour with friends virtually, you can now invite someone for some オン飲み (on-nomi), or online drinking.​


Battle Cries And Begging: The COVID-19 crisis is testing the limits of rhetoric coming from national and local leaders around the world. In Iran, one of the countries worst-hit by the pandemic, (nearly 15,000 infections and 853 deaths as of Monday) the head of the country's revolutionary guards corps, Hossein Salami, said his troops were "on a war footing in all the provinces, alongside the medical community," to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Still, as we have seen around the world, much of the responsibility for stemming the spread comes to the personal choices of individuals. To that end, according to a report in the semi-official ISNA agency, Salami, also used the same declaration to "beg" Iranians to respect limits imposed on their movement.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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