The pandemic hovers over China’s once-a-year political congress.
Coronavirus cases in China have slowed to a fraction of what they were in January, but the pandemic was weighing heavily on the country’s politics and economy as top officials began a tightly choreographed legislative pageant on Friday.
In one sense, the National People’s Congress is a chance for China’s leaders, who won broad public support for curbing the spread of the outbreak, to push back against growing international criticism over their early missteps in Wuhan. President Xi Jinping has described his government’s containment efforts as a “people’s war” against the virus.
A key policy goal of the conference — pressing an offensive to subdue the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory — also suggests that Mr. Xi’s government is determined to show it will not be politically cowed by the crisis. China announced on Thursday that it planned to impose stringent new security legislation on Hong Kong in the coming months.
For one, his government faces a new outbreak in Jilin, a northeastern province of 27 million people that sits near China’s borders with Russia and North Korea. Jilin has been put under a Wuhan-style lockdown as it has reported an outbreak that is still small — about 130 cases and two deaths — but has the potential to become a “big explosion,” experts say. The Congress agenda includes proposals to improve the country’s hospitals and disease surveillance system, and delegates opened the proceedings with 60 seconds of silence for the more than 4,600 people who have died from the virus in the country.
Then there is the economy, which shrank in the first three months of the year compared with a year earlier — the first decline in the modern era. On Friday, Chinese officials declined to set an economic growth target for this year and outlined plans to ramp up government spending.
“At present, the epidemic has not yet come to an end, while the tasks we face in promoting development are immense,” Premier Li Keqiang told lawmakers as the National People’s Congress opened in Beijing on Friday. “We must redouble our efforts to minimize the losses resulting from the virus.”
The virus also presented challenges for organizers of the Congress, which is a logistical nightmare even in normal times.
Delegates have been made to take nucleic acid tests for the virus before being allowed to travel to Beijing. Masks will be required, windows will be opened to improve ventilation, and most journalists must follow proceedings and join news conferences by video link.
Every morning before dawn for the past few weeks, Yasser al-Samak, a Bahraini man, has roamed the streets in his village outside Manama, the capital, waking his neighbors for the predawn suhoor meal that observant Muslims eat during the holy month of Ramadan before their daylong fast.
“Stay home with your family, and blend your suhoor with hope, because those who rely on God, he will protect them,” he sings, according to Agence France-Presse. “Make yourself strong with prayer and wear the mask as a shield against the pandemic.”
In villages and cities around the Middle East, some “Ramadan drummers” still keep alive a tradition that in recent years has given way to alarm clocks and smartphone alerts. But under the coronavirus cloud, almost everything else about Ramadan — and the usually joyful holiday that marks its end, Eid al-Fitr, which begins this weekend — has been new, and not in a good way.
As a nod to the holy month, and in part because Covid-19 caseloads seemed to be lightening, several Arab countries slightly relaxed restrictions on gathering and commerce — only to clamp down again as cases suddenly mounted.
The Eid holiday will pose a sharp challenge to the authorities: Instead of taking part in communal prayer, feasts and parties, many people in the Middle East and across the Muslim world will be more confined than they have been in weeks.
Saudi Arabia has announced a 24-hour curfew from Saturday through Wednesday, covering the entire holiday period. Omani authorities have banned all Eid gatherings, saying that residents have still been meeting in groups in defiance of social-distancing orders. Qatar has suspended all but a few business activities during Eid. The United Arab Emirates is shifting its nightly curfew earlier.
Egypt, which never shut down its economy to the extent that other countries in the region did, is also tightening up for Eid. The national curfew will be moved up four hours to 5 p.m.; restaurants, cafes, beaches and parks will be closed.
As for prayers, the religious authorities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have ruled that they should be performed at home.
The British government confirmed on Friday that it will quarantine everyone flying into the country, including citizens, to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
On arrival at an airport, travelers will have to provide an address where they will be staying. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the broadcaster Sky News on Friday that international travelers would face spot checks by public health officials and fines of 1,000 pounds, or about $1,200, if they failed to self-isolate for 14 days.
Citizens of Ireland would be exempt, Sky reported, but not arrivals from France, as had been previously reported.
Britain’s move comes more than seven weeks after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a stay-at-home order that has since been shifted to “stay alert” and is in line with measures by other countries. The chief executive of the budget airline Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, has described the new plans as “hopelessly defective,” “idiotic” and “unimplementable,” saying that Britain does not even have enough police officers to enforce the lockdown. Airlines UK has said the measure “would effectively kill” international travel to and from Britain.
But Jonathan Ashworth, the opposition Labour Party’s shadow health secretary, told Sky that “many people had asked why we did not do this sooner,” adding, “Not taking all the measures that we should be taking is the idiotic position.”
More than 250,000 people have tested positive for the virus in Britain, with over 36,000 deaths.
Home Secretary Priti Patel was to set out more details about the new measures at a briefing later Friday, but they are not expected to come into effect until next month.
Officials will release information on the nation’s R number, the rate of infection, as it relates to the fight against the virus, the BBC said. The government’s top scientific advisory group, the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, or S.A.G.E., was also expected to release its advice on reopening schools.
Concerns about coronavirus infections have added new dimensions to an already polarizing global debate over migration.
On Thursday in Guatemala, for example, President Alejandro Giammattei voiced frustration over U.S. deportations of people infected with the virus, saying it was causing “serious problems” for his nation’s health system.
“Guatemala is an ally of the United States, but the United States is not Guatemala’s ally,” Mr. Giammattei said. “They don’t treat us like an ally.”
There have been 119 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among people deported from the United States to Guatemala, The Associated Press reported. Some deportees have became a point of contention in Guatemala, where several community councils last month threatened to burn a government building where migrants were quarantined over concerns that they posed a health risk.
In Hungary, the government on Thursday shut down transit zones along the Serbian border where thousands of migrants have been stuck for a year or more. It freed about 300 refugees from the zones, Reuters reported, while also effectively barring future ones from applying for asylum.
Reuters quoted President Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, as saying that the zones were emptied after an E.U. court ruled that the practice of keeping migrants inside them was unlawful.
And in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government agreed to scrap a policy that requires staff from overseas in the country’s vaunted National Health Service to pay a surcharge — nearly $500 per year for migrants who aren’t from the European Union — to help fund the system in which they work.
Mr. Johnson had previously resisted calls to exempt the workers, saying on Wednesday that his government “must look at the realities” of funding the N.H.S.
But after public pressure mounted, Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Thursday that the workers would be exempted “as soon as possible.” Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, called it “a victory for common decency.”
A group of 77 Nobel laureates has asked for an investigation into the cancellation of a federal grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a group that researches bat coronaviruses in China.
The pre-eminent scientists characterized the explanation for the decision by the National Institutes of Health as “preposterous.” The agency said the investigation into the sources of pandemics did not fit “with program goals and agency priorities.”
The Nobel recipients said the grant was canceled “just a few days after President Trump responded to a question from a reporter who erroneously claimed that the grant awarded millions of dollars to investigators in Wuhan.” President Trump said the grant would be ended immediately.
The grant had been given to EcoHealth Alliance, an organization with headquarters in New York that studies the potential for spillover of animal viruses to humans around the globe. The group collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been at the center of conspiracy theories about how the novel coronavirus originated. Virologists and intelligence agencies agree that the virus evolved in nature and spread from animals to humans.
Days after the news conference in April, the National Institutes of Health emailed Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance. They questioned his work with the Wuhan Institute, and after an exchange of emails, he was informed that the renewal of his grant for more than $3 million was canceled.
Harold E. Varmus, a former director of the N.I.H., said that the government always sets broad priorities for research that some scientists may disagree with, including restrictions on use of embryonic stem cells, but that this research was squarely in line with federal priorities. He called the cancellation “an outrageous abuse of political power to control the way science works.”
For the Wessex Mill in Oxfordshire, that has meant an unprecedented boom in production. The family-owned mill found itself fielding nearly 600 calls a day in mid-March, and it has ramped up its output fourfold during the crisis.
Emily Munsey, who runs the business with her father, has hired more staff and added shifts to keep the mill running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the first time in its 125-year history.
“It’s been very challenging as a company. The amount of work we’ve all had to do has increased a huge amount,” said Ms. Munsey, who has also had to scramble to source packaging to hold the flour. “Demand remains consistently obscene.”
Of course, the outbreak has also ignited demand for flour in other countries. In France, market research by Nielsen showed that demand doubled in March. In Italy, it reached its highest level since World War II.
Australian border officials said Friday that they had found almost two kilograms, or about 4.4 pounds, of methamphetamine hidden in packages of medical supplies sent from Canada.
The packages were opened by border officers in Sydney in early May. In the first, about two pounds of methamphetamines were hidden under boxes of face masks and bottles of hand sanitizer. In the second, the drugs were stashed inside sanitizer bottles.
It was no surprise that criminals were taking advantage of the pandemic to smuggle drugs into the country, officials said. “We are continuing to detect and stop illicit substances coming into Australia, no matter how they’re being concealed,” said John Fleming, a Border Force superintendent who oversees mail and cargo.
Two weeks ago, much of Australia kicked off a three-stage reopening plan, in which many schools are reopening and cafes, restaurants and pubs are allowed to seat limited numbers of patrons. Officials said today in New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, that the number will be increased to 50 by June 1.
Travel restrictions in the region will also be lifted on that date, they said earlier this week, for the first time in two months.
The call to prayer rang on a recent afternoon from Jamia Mosque, a landmark in downtown Nairobi with green and silver domes and multiple minarets. There should be worshipers converging there during this sacred month of Ramadan, but the mosque’s doors remained shut, its prayer halls empty since closing in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With no congregation to join, I sat in the car, rolled down the windows and listened to the muezzin’s voice, a mellifluous sound that instantly made me cry.
This is a Ramadan like no other. The pandemic, which in Kenya has infected at least 1,109 people and killed at least 50 others, has given us the gift of loneliness. Isolated under a partial lockdown in Nairobi and a nationwide curfew that stretches from dusk to dawn, millions of Muslims in Kenya and beyond have exchanged sprawling banquets for dining alone and observing the evening taraweeh prayers from home.
I chafe at the imposed restrictions sometimes because, with 21 siblings and 16 nephews and nieces, the iftar meal to break the daily fast has always for me been a bustling family affair. We would start with dates, then gorge on spicy samosas and chicken biryani, pass around my mother’s legendary camel meat, and share cakes and sweet chai.
Many times, particularly when we were young, we would even watch an episode or two of the historical epics or weepy melodramas that are a mainstay of Arab television during Ramadan. But this year, we are getting more than enough drama from real life.
And so we stay physically apart but find unity in the rituals of fasting and feasting. Things might be falling apart, but I have come to find comfort and continuity in the small things: the paneer samosas sent by a friend’s mom, the afternoon runs at a nearby, almost-empty forest, the messages from loved ones checking in from all over the world — and the sound of the azan, the call to prayer, broadcast from the tops of minarets.
President Trump, who has defiantly refused to wear a mask in public despite the recommendations of federal health officials, toured a Ford plant in Michigan on Thursday with his face uncovered. That was against the factory’s guidelines and the direct urging of the state’s attorney general.
During his visit, Mr. Trump continued to press for the further easing of social-distancing restrictions. He blamed Democrats for keeping the economy closed and suggested voters would punish them in the presidential election and view it as “a November question.”
Here’s what else happened on Thursday in the United States:
Mr. Trump called for flags at the White House, on public grounds across the country and on naval vessels to be flown at half-staff in honor of the victims of the coronavirus. It was a rare acknowledgment of the lives lost from an administration that typically likes to downplay the death toll and take credit for lives it claims it saved.
The Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday that it would provide up to $1.2 billion to the drug company AstraZeneca to develop a potential coronavirus vaccine from a laboratory at Oxford.
The federal government reported that another 2.4 million American workers filed for jobless benefits last week, bringing the total to a staggering 38.6 million in nine weeks.
Reporting contributed by Yonette Joseph, Vivian Yee, Geneva Abdul, Evan Easterling, Isabella Kwai, Abdi Latif Dahir, Javier C. Hernández, Keith Bradsher, Chris Buckley, Mike Ives, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, James Gorman, Cade Metz and Erin Griffith.