ABC

Coronavirus — Global Brief: The Benefits Of Sharing The Bad News

Conte addresses the Italian Parliament last month
Conte addresses the Italian Parliament last month

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 Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

SPOTLIGHT: THE BENEFITS OF SHARING THE BAD NEWS

If the fabric of our globalized society has been tested by the spread of COVID-19, that's also true for our national leaders. Our prime ministers and presidents are facing the kind of leadership challenge they could never have prepared for, with one thorny social-economic-cultural-constitutional dilemma after the other. High on that list is the question: How do you deliver unimaginably terrible news to your citizens?

It would seem so far, as the severity of the crisis becomes more apparent, that people prefer straightforward communication from their leaders. Germany's Angela Merkel warned at an early stage that up to 70% Germans could eventually get the virus and was the first leader to liken the crisis to war. The Chancellor's approval rates have steadily increased, with a recent poll showing that 89% of the German people believe the government is handling the situation well. This is also true for France's Emanuel Macron whose approval rating has jumped to a nearly two-year high of 43% after the country was put on lockdown March 17 with an even more aggressive declaration of "war" against the virus. Italy's Giuseppe Conte — seen by many as a short-term, accidental leader — has risen in stature by a similar approach of coming clean about the death that coronavirus was bound to bring.


Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump has reliably played his entirely own game. For a while that meant mostly downplaying the crisis while assuming the role as arch-expert and protector of the American economy. But despite harsh international critique, a recent Gallup Poll shows that for only the second time in Trump's presidency, more Americans approve (49%) than disapprove (45%) of his performance, while some 60% gave him positive reviews for his handling of the crisis. Some experts attribute this to the "rally-round-the-flag" effect of the crisis, as it increases patriotic sentiments while some punches from the opposition are pulled for purposes of national unity. However, it seems Trump realizes there is truly bad news to come. His press briefing on Tuesday, which included warnings from health officials that the death toll could rise to 240,000, took a completely different tone. It's safe to say that Trump is thinking about his polls number, but there's also that always pesky factor called reality.

— Carl-Johan Carlsson

THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

  • Toll: A record one-day death total in Spain of 864 and France of 499, as European toll passes 30,000 mark. Single day record in U.S. as well, with more than 850 deaths. U.S. President Trump warns of "roughest two or three weeks we've ever had in our country" and health officials predict up to 240,000 deaths.

  • Record recession: According to UN Chief Antonio Guterres, the world is facing the most challenging crisis since WWII that will bring "a recession that probably has no parallel in the recent past."

  • Markets & Factories: World markets keep falling, as monthly reports on factory activity plunge.

  • Indigenous exposed: Brazil reports first coronavirus case in an indigenous community: a 19-year old woman in the Amazonas state.

  • No Wimbledon: The world's premier tennis tournament, slated to begin June 29, has been canceled for the first time since World War II.

  • City block: U.S. authorities are removing basketball hoops from public courts all around the country in effort to prevent social gatherings.

  • Country block: Turkmenistan bans the word "coronavirus."


WUHAN ASHES "MIXED TOGETHER": It's been one week since residents in Wuhan, the Chinese city where Covid-19 originated, have been allowed to collect the ashes of their family members who died during the epidemic.

The long lines outside each of Wuhan's eight crematoria suggest the official coronavirus death count of 2,531 may be just a fraction of the true toll. But reports say despair is spreading among the relatives of the victims for another reason: the ashes may not be identifiable.

Tang Dynasty Television reported that social media posts by a local resident named Qin Peng, who said one of the crematorium confirmed to him that the ashes of all the dead were "mixed together, and just divided into equal amounts in the funeral urns in accordance with the total death toll."

"This is definitely 100% possible," another anonymous Wuhan citizen told the network. "During the peak time of the pandemic, the crematoria were burning several corpses at one time in each incinerator. No family member was allowed to be present. Who knows what they were doing."

"If the doctor upsets so many, it's probably because he is right ..."

— People are asking why French physician Didier Raoult's hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine treatments for coronavirus aren't more widely applied — and some are taking their suspicions to a dark place. Read Le Monde"s Damien Leloup and Lucie Soullier article A French Doctor, Hydroxychloroquine And Conspiracy Theories, translated from French by Worldcrunch.


This week's cover of French magazine Society,

with the country more than two weeks into lockdown.

TOURISM LOCKDOWN: One after the other, countries have been closing their borders, prohibiting gatherings inside their territory and closing popular vacation sites. It is a virtually worldwide, though hopefully temporary death to tourism. This year was supposed to set a new record with an ever rising number of tourists around the world. According to the World Tourism Organization, it will, indeed, set a record, but the opposite one, as it is expected to be the worst year since World War II. Tourism supports one in 10 of the jobs in the world today, meaning up to 75 million jobs could be at risk by the COVID-19 crisis, reported the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) in their latest research.

  • Lonely Backpackers: Sydney-based ABC reports that in Australia, foreign backpackers, who represent a big part of the seasonal task-force, both in agriculture and hospitality sectors, have been caught in limbo: as most of the country's hostels closed their doors and return flights homehave been grounded.

  • Unemployed Elephants: In Thailand, concern is growing about the fate of the 2,000 domesticated elephants, one of the country's most popular (and controversial) attractions. Unable to go back to wildlife and now jobless, just like their handlers, they could starve to death, reports The New York Times.

  • Unreachable Mecca: Late February, Saudi Arabia announced the closing of Mecca, where 8 million Muslims and tourists come every year, which supports 600,000 jobs. So far, the measure is said to be temporary and only affect the Umrah pilgrimage, which can be done any time of the year. The hajj, however, has a fixed date, slated at the end of July. Authorities have urged Muslims to delay their plan, suggesting the pilgrimage could be cancelled.

LOVE KNOWS NO BORDERS: Inga Rasmussen and Karsten Tüchsen Hansen, ages 85 and 89, have spent everyday together since they met two years ago, already a beautiful later-in-life love story. Now, it has a COVID-19 plot twist. The couple live on opposite sides of the Danish-German border, according to Deutsche Welle. Despite this, they meet up every day on either side of the closed border: sharing conversations, lunch or some biscuits and a flask of coffee or Geele Köm — a popular spirit of the region. Cheers to both! Wishing them good health and the chance to get a bit closer very soon!



• Teleworking comes with its challenges — one of them is trying not to set off the "potato" filter during video conferences.

• Sorry, pranksters of the world: it's probably a good idea to cancel this year's April's fools … but how about we revisit some previous ones from around the world?


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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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