World

Bernie Sanders backs Joe Biden’s presidential bid. The Pacific cleans up after Cyclone Harold. Repressive regimes downplay Covid-19. Locust infestation in east Africa. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Biden leads polls as Trump lays blame

United States President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with healthcare executives in the Cabinet Room at the White House this week.
Credit: REUTERS / Leah Mills

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: On Monday, Joe Biden received his most significant endorsement in his bid to become president, as Bernie Sanders issued a solemn promise to “do all that I can” to remove Donald Trump from the White House.    

Sanders, a progressive, ended his campaign last week, saying he had no “feasible path” to secure the Democratic nomination and did not want to disrupt the effort to defeat Trump. His swift backing of Biden was a departure from his approach in 2016, when he endorsed Hillary Clinton in mid-July, just two weeks before the Democratic convention. A survey of Sanders supporters later found that about a quarter did not vote for Clinton in the presidential election.

In a friendly live-stream chat, Sanders and Biden announced that they will now form working groups to develop policies in six areas, including immigration and climate change.

Biden also received an endorsement this week from Barack Obama, whom he served as vice-president for eight years. “Joe has the character and the experience to guide us through one of our darkest times,” Obama said.

Polls show Biden has a strong lead over Trump, though the margin is slim in battleground states such as Wisconsin and Florida. At 77, Biden would be the oldest first-term president in US history (he would be 78 when he took office).

Trump’s approval ratings have dropped since the coronavirus outbreak, with about 45 per cent of voters now approving of his performance and 51 per cent disapproving. His handling of the crisis has been erratic and unpredictable, and he has been heavily criticised for his reluctance to take the pandemic seriously or to support strict health measures.

On Tuesday, Trump lashed out at the World Health Organization, saying it had helped China to cover up the spread of the virus and had opposed his decision to block flights from China. He announced he was suspending funding of the WHO until a review of the organisation was completed. The US last year contributed about 15 per cent of the WHO’s budget.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said the move “makes as much sense as cutting off ammunition to an ally as the enemy closes in”. The US has the world’s highest Covid-19 death toll – by Friday it was approaching 35,000.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Vanuatu: On Pentecost, a lush island in Vanuatu strewn with small villages and townships, almost every home and building was either damaged or destroyed by Cyclone Harold, one of the country’s fiercest cyclones on record. Yet, more than a week later, residents say they are still waiting for medical help and basic supplies of food and water.

A Vanuatu resident, Loyd Warri, who flew over Pentecost this week to help dispatch supplies, told Radio New Zealand: “The whole place looks as if it was bombed.”

The cyclone is believed to have killed four people in Vanuatu and left about 160,000 people in need of assistance. Food crops were ruined, water supplies blocked, and more than 1000 schools were damaged or destroyed. Shortages of food and medical supplies have been exacerbated by Covid-19-related restrictions on travel and imports.

Australia and New Zealand have sent supplies but have been forced to comply with strict quarantine measures.

Jotham Napat, Vanuatu’s acting deputy prime minister, this week blamed the country’s disaster agency for a slow and disorganised response, saying its leadership should resign. But some aid workers said disaster authorities had performed well and were urgently trying to reach remote communities.

The cyclone also caused heavy damage in Fiji, leaving almost 2000 people in evacuation centres. In Tonga, it damaged or destroyed more than 400 houses.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Turkmenistan: Doctors have been banned from using the word “coronavirus” and are not allowed to use their phones at hospitals in Turkmenistan, apparently to prevent them taking photographs of infected patients. Meanwhile, public places have been fumigated with odours of yuzarlik, a plant that the president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, has suggested may ward off viruses.

The country’s official number of Covid-19 infections is zero – a figure that experts doubt, particularly as it shares a border with Iran, which has had more than 75,000 cases.

Turkmenistan is often rated as the world’s most secretive country and the most hostile towards reporters. In recent weeks, state media has depicted a country happily unaffected by the pandemic, including stories about a mass bike ride of 3500 cyclists for World Health Day.

But it is not the only nation adopting a denialist approach. There seems to be a close correlation between countries that are typically rated among the most repressive in the world and those reporting suspiciously low numbers of Covid-19 cases. North Korea has also reported zero cases, despite ordering stricter health measures this week. The country shares a border with China, though it has barred arrivals of Chinese and other foreign travellers. Tajikistan, too, has reported no cases.

Nicaragua, which also sits low on freedom lists, has reported nine cases. The government has kept sporting and cultural events operating and threatened to expel students who do not attend school. Before making a televised address on Wednesday, Daniel Ortega, the country’s 74-year-old president, was not seen for a month, leading to suggestions he might be ill or dead, though he has disappeared several times throughout his long political career.

These apparently coronavirus-proof nations appear to be largely concerned that admitting to the dangers and shutting down the economy may cause popular unrest. Some may also be worried about highlighting the inadequacies of their health systems.

Turkmenistan has now closed its borders, stopped rail transport and shut gyms and sports clubs. It has received, or is due to receive, aid and testing kits from Russia, the US and the United Nations.

SPOTLIGHT: Locust plague

Ethiopia: Hundreds of billions of locusts are spreading across east Africa in an infestation expected to be 20 times worse than an outbreak two months ago, which itself marked the area’s worst locust plague in 70 years. The looming swarms are expected to damage or wipe out vital food crops for millions of people. 

An assessment by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) described the infestation as “extremely alarming”, saying swarms were now forming in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia just as the crop-planting season was due to start. 

“This represents an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods,” the FAO said.

The locusts have already damaged 200,000 hectares of farmland in Ethiopia. According to the FAO, a swarm covering one square kilometre contains 40 million locusts that can eat as much food in one day as 35,000 people. Some of the swarms are reportedly the size of Manhattan. 

The invasion has been caused by unusually heavy rains in late March, which spurred the breeding of the locusts that had devastated parts of east Africa in February.  

Countries in the region have been urgently conducting aerial and ground spraying of pesticides. But there are concerns that disruptions to global air freight due to the Covid-19 pandemic may delay the arrival of sprayers and pesticides.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2020 as "Biden leads polls as Trump lays blame".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.