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Coronavirus — Global Brief: Pretext For Power Grab Or Too Much To Handle

Orban greets a Chinese crew with elbow-bumps after arrival of supplies to fight COVID-19 arrived in Budapest
Orban greets a Chinese crew with elbow-bumps after arrival of supplies to fight COVID-19 arrived in Budapest

The insidious path of COVID-19 across the planet is a blunt reminder of how small the world has become. For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on this crisis from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.


Before the coronavirus crisis swallowed all the world's attention, history seemed to be hanging in the balance for other reasons. The rise (or return) of authoritarianism was high on the list of earth-shaking global trends, featuring a eclectic lineup of power-hungry leaders from Beijing to Budapest to Brasilia, not to mention Washington D.C, whose heavy-handed rule was challenging a certain basic idea of liberal democracy.

Now with the global health pandemic posing the same complicated problems to every nation and their respective rulers, how are the world's strongmen holding up? Two kindred spirits in the Western Hemisphere, U.S. President Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro, have stood out for largely dismissing the health risks of coronavirus, with the latter even accused of knowingly spreading it himself after allegedly testing positive. Still, despite the gross negligence, neither has used the crisis as a pretext for a power grab, as some might have feared. John F. Harris of Politico puts it this way: "The notion of Trump as authoritarian strongman has been cast in an odd light in this pandemic. Would-be tyrants use crisis to consolidate power. Trump, by contrast, has been pilloried from many quarters, including many liberals, for not asserting authority and responsibility more forcefully to combat Covid-19."

Elsewhere, however, we are seeing how this unprecedented health crisis can be used for purely authoritarian purposes. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose attack on civil liberties had already put him in direct conflict with most of his European Union counterparts, has gained parliamentary approval for new measures that grant him powers to rule by decree ... indefinitely. Orban's powers include imposing five-year prison sentences for spreading misinformation about the virus that, according to official statistics, has only infected 100 people in his country. We've seen a similar approach in Russia, where Vladimir Putin has proposed a new mechanism that would allow him to rule until 2036.

Meanwhile in India, Prime Minister Narenda Modi has his own authoritarian ambitions. Yet, the coronavirus appears to be such an immense challenge in the world's second largest country, Modi has been forced to publicly ask forgiveness for granting just a four-hour notice before a nationwide lockdown that put many poor people in peril. Subsequently, the stimulus package his government proposed was pilloried for being insufficient. Delhi-based news site The Wire asks, "doesn't anyone in the Modi government — and Narendra Modi himself — consider the human cost of such decisions?" With so many people's lives on the line, the coronavirus may prove to be stronger than any strongman could have ever hoped to be.

— Rozena Crossman


  • Toll: The number of global deaths passes 34,000 mark, with nearly one-third in Italy. War-torn Syria reports its first COVID-19 death while President Trump, who initially downplayed the impact, is now saying 100,000 Americans could die from the virus.

  • Power grab: Hungary's parliament set to pass coronavirus prevention bill that could give Prime Minister Viktor Orbancarte blanche to rule by decree with no clear time limit.

  • Russia's turn?Moscow's 12 million residents are put under new lockdown, with restrictions expected to spread throughout the country.

  • Monday markets: Wall Street shares rise, while oil prices hit 18-year low as the week opened with COVID-19 still dominating market reactions..

  • Grounded: EasyJet grounds entire global fleet as pandemic brings air travel to standstill and throws into question future of the industry.

  • Silenced: Twitter deletes two tweets from Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, in which he criticized quarantine measures taken by local authorities.

  • Red Bull: Helmut Marko, chief of Red Bull motorsport, wanted the team's drivers to become infected with coronavirus so they could be immune for next season. The idea was dropped.

WHAT'S THE REAL WUHAN DEATH TOLL? In the Chinese city where the coronavirus outbreak began, the most severe quarantine measures are beginning to ease. But life is hardly returning to normal in the capital city of the province of Hubei. The most painful question for locals is being closely followed by the entire world: How many people died in Wuhan?

  • The Chinese government's official death toll is 2,531 for the city.

  • Since last Thursday, survivors have been allowed to collect the ashes of their loved ones, and Beijing-based Caixin Global reports long lines at all eight major funeral homes.

  • Suspicious of the official number, Chinese-language opposition news outletThe Epoch Times did the math. Wuhan's eight crematoria have a total of 86 incinerators. The largest among them, the Hankou funeral parlor, was previously reported to be in operation 24 hours a day with the capacity to incinerate 576 corpses per day.

  • Epoch Times estimated that the total number of corpses burned in Wuhan during the 40-day peak period to be 66,048.

  • Another funeral parlor has stated it will distribute 500 boxes of ashes per day, hoping to finish the distribution in 12 days, in time for Tomb-Sweeping Day, the equivalent of the Christian All-Saints Day, on April 4th. This means that a single crematorium will incinerate 6,000 corpses. Again, the official city-wide death count is 2,531.

Slovak daily Dennik N: The government unveils its 1-billion euro aid package that will pay up to 80% income to employees of companies forced to close while also helping self-employed people.

ALL HANDS ON DECK — THAI MONK MASKS: Buddhist monks outside of Bangkok, Thailand have taken it upon themselves to make COVID-19 masks out of recycled plastic, Channel News Asia reports. Along with the help of volunteers, the monks of the Chak Daeng temple have been weaving together synthetic fabrics made from recycled plastic and cotton to make their masks, on which a buddhist prayer is inscribed as a finishing touch. The temple has a recycling history, with monks producing their own robes from the 15 tons of plastic bottles it receives every month.

ALL HANDS ON DECK — FETISH SAVING LIVES: A small fetish wear company in the U.K., MedFetUK, known for their medical fetish and roleplay supplies, announced they would be donating their entire stock of "top quality medical grade" disposable scrubs to a National Health Service (NHS) hospital at no charge. The company took to Twitter to express not only their surprise after being contacted by NHS representatives in need of protective gear, but also contempt for the organization, which they say should have been more prepared to deal with the current coronavirus pandemic in the first place. They wrote, "When we, a tiny company set up to serve a small section of the kink community, find ourselves being sought out as a last-resort supplier to our National Health Service in a time of crisis, something is seriously wrong."

ALL HANDS ON DECK III — F1 OXYGEN: Mercedes will build up to 1,000 Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) devices a day in a factory that normally produces F1 power units, The Independent reports. The CPAP breathing aids, developed by engineers and clinicians at University College London, are capable of taking coronavirus victims out of intensive care and will save lives by ensuring that the limited ventilators can be used for more critical patients. They have already been implemented in hospitals in the Lombardy region of Italy, one of the hardest-hit areas in the world, where up to 50% of COVID-19 patients are being treated with a CPAP device rather than a ventilator.

THE MIGRANT QUESTION: In a time when half of the world is immobile, what happens to those who move by definition? Both domestic and foreign-born migrants, who have long struggled to find stability and security, are now even more vulnerable in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak and strict measures to limit movement. As governments scramble to create financial packages and deliver aid, some migrant groups are left further exposed, even as others are likely to benefit from new emergency measures:

  • Internal migrant workers in India are trekking back to their countryside origins — walking as far as 170 kilometers — because of the nationwide shutdown. "Hunger will kill us before the coronavirus," one migrant told Delhi-based The Wire.

  • Lisbon news site Observadorreports that Portugal is granting temporary citizenship to all foreign migrants and asylum seekers currently applying for residency. They will remain citizens until at least July 1st. All visas that expired after February 24th are now valid until June 30th. The move ensures that all residents will have access to healthcare and social security, two crucial components to fight the virus.

  • In France, meanwhile, it's a mixed bag. Like Portugal, legal residents with expiring visas have been granted an extension. Yet many of those undocumented migrants gathered in the northern city of Calais say they've experienced food shortages and police brutality, and are so fearful of French authorities that they're attempting to make a dangerous run for the UK instead, the Guardian reports. The lockdown has also put the administrative procedures of asylum on hold, which means many risk sudden expulsion. According to a French immigration lawyer interviewed by the La Croix daily: "Asylum is a fundamental right, and I don't think there's ever been an asylum suspended in such a way since the Geneva Convention."

"These are times of struggle, suffering, work, pride. But soon, we will wipe away our tears, we will get up and we will remember."

— Giacomo Ghilardi, the mayor of Cinisello, tellsLa Stampaafter a 34-year-old father from the town northeast of Milan died of COVID-19, and was listed as the 10,000th Italian to die from the virus.

• As we all have to endure more or less graciously the artistic endeavors of confined amateur musicians, isn't it a shame that Sir Elton John is locked in without a proper piano?

• The upside of empty streets in Paris: Dinosaurs can at long last roam (and disco) free.

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Shame On The García Márquez Heirs — Cashing In On The "Scraps" Of A Legend

A decision to publish a sketchy manuscript as a posthumous novel by the late Gabriel García Márquez would have horrified Colombia's Nobel laureate, given his painstaking devotion to the precision of the written word.

Photo of a window with a sticker of the face of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with butterfly notes at Guadalajara's International Book Fair.

Poster of Gabriel Garcia Marquez at Guadalajara's International Book Fair.

Juan David Torres Duarte


BOGOTÁ — When a writer dies, there are several ways of administering the literary estate, depending on the ambitions of the heirs. One is to exercise a millimetric check on any use or edition of the author's works, in the manner of James Joyce's nephew, Stephen, who inherited his literary rights. He refused to let even academic papers quote from Joyce's landmark novel, Ulysses.

Or, you continue to publish the works, making small additions to their corpus, as with Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett and Clarice Lispector, or none at all, which will probably happen with Milan Kundera and Cormac McCarthy.

Another way is to seek out every scrap of paper the author left and every little word that was jotted down — on a piece of cloth, say — and drip-feed them to publishers every two to three years with great pomp and publicity, to revive the writer's renown.

This has happened with the Argentine Julio Cortázar (who seems to have sold more books dead than alive), the French author Albert Camus (now with 200 volumes of personal and unfinished works) and with the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The latter's posthumous oeuvre is so abundant I am starting to wonder if his heirs haven't hired a ghost writer — typing and smoking away in some bedsit in Barcelona — to churn out "newly discovered" works.

Which group, I wonder, will our late, great novelist Gabriel García Márquez fit into?

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