World

Trump congratulates US on ‘good job’ on pandemic. New Zealand limits numbers of returning Kiwis. Law professor and China critic Xu Zhangrun arrested in Beijing. Ethnic tensions rise in Ethiopia after singer’s murder. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Covid-19 cases in US exceed three million

US President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday.
Credit: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: On Tuesday, as the US recorded its three millionth case of Covid-19, President Donald Trump declared that the country is “in a good place”.

“We’ve done a good job,” he told the Gray Television network. “… In two, three, four weeks, by the time we next speak, I think we’re going to be in very good shape.”

Trump rejected the assessment of Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious diseases expert, who this week warned the country’s situation was “really not good”. Fauci said the recent surge in cases was part of the first wave of infections and was linked to the decision by some states and cities to reopen.

Shortly after, Trump said in a tweet that the media had failed to report that the US has the world’s lowest Covid-19 mortality rate. Its mortality rate is 4.4 per cent, almost four times higher than Australia’s. Last week, new daily cases in the US reached a high of 57,718, compared with a peak in April of 43,438.

Despite the surge, Trump has been pressing schools to reopen. He also moved this week to formally withdraw the US from the World Health Organization after claiming it was under China’s control. Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential contender, said the US would rejoin the organisation on the first day of his presidency.

Trump is due to hold a campaign rally in New Hampshire this weekend. His first rally in Tulsa last month attracted a relatively low turnout but is believed to have led to new Covid-19 cases. Herman Cain, the 74-year-old former presidential candidate and co-chair of Black Voices for Trump, attended the event and was hospitalised this week after becoming infected.

The country with the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases is Brazil, which had recorded 1.7 million cases by Thursday. On Tuesday, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s 65-year-old president, who has repeatedly dismissed the severity of the pandemic, confirmed he had tested positive for the virus.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand:  New Zealand is limiting the number of expatriates allowed to return to the country due to concerns about a potential shortage of quarantine facilities.

About 5500 people were due to return to New Zealand over the next three weeks, mainly from Australia and the US.

But the government has asked Air New Zealand to limit the number of arrivals to ensure isolation facilities are not overwhelmed. The airline agreed to ban future bookings for the next three weeks and potentially delay the return of existing ticketholders. Other airlines, such as Singapore Airlines, are also assisting with controlling the flow of passengers.

New Zealanders returning from abroad must spend 14 days in isolation hotels and are moved to quarantine hotels if they have symptoms or test positive for Covid-19.

As of Thursday, New Zealand had recorded 1540 cases of Covid-19 and 22 deaths. The country has not had community-based transmission of the virus in more than two months.

Since June 8, New Zealand has been subject to its lowest level of restrictions, which allows people to work, travel domestically and attend school. There are no limits on the number of people allowed at gatherings.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

China: In July 2018, Xu Zhangrun, a Chinese law professor, gained international prominence after publishing an essay that presented a devastating critique of China’s leadership. In the essay, Xu warned that President Xi Jinping’s move to make himself ruler for life threatened to cast China back “to the terrifying days of Mao”.

Last year, Xu, who has a PhD from Melbourne University, was suspended from his post at Tsinghua University but continued to denounce the ruling Communist Party and its recent secrecy surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak. In February, he acknowledged the risk of speaking out. “I can now all too easily predict that I will be subjected to new punishments; indeed, this may well even be the last piece I write,” he wrote.

On Monday, Xu, who is 57 years old, was arrested and taken from his home in Beijing. He had reportedly kept underwear and a toothbrush in a bag near his front door in case he was detained. Police have not commented on the arrest. A friend of Xu said police made the “ridiculous” claim that he was arrested for soliciting prostitutes.

The move follows a growing campaign by Beijing to curb dissent, including arrests of prominent critics and the recent introduction of national security laws for Hong Kong.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade this week upgraded its travel advice to warn Australians they may be at risk of “arbitrary detention” if they visit China. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson responded: “There is no need to worry at all as long as they [travellers] abide by laws and regulations.”

In his essay in February, Xu wrote: “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance … The political life of the nation is in a state of collapse and [the] ethical core of the system has been rendered hollow.”

SPOTLIGHT: Murder in Ethiopia

On June 29, Hachalu Hundessa, a well-known Ethiopian singer, was driving through the capital, Addis Ababa, when – just as he had foreseen – he was shot and killed. Hundessa had long campaigned for the rights of the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group. His music has been described as the soundtrack for the protest movement that led to the downfall of a prime minister in 2018 and the appointment of Abiy Ahmed, the first Oromo to serve as prime minister.

The murder of Hundessa, who was 34 years old, has sparked ethnic tensions across the country, leaving at least 166 people dead. Abiy responded to the unrest by sending in troops and cutting off the internet. More than 2200 people, including several opposition leaders, have been arrested.

Abiy won the Nobel peace prize last year for his efforts to reach a deal that ended years of war with Eritrea, and he was also recognised for removing some of the politically repressive measures of his predecessors. But he has faced growing criticism for his recent crackdowns on protests and the media. He delayed elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic and is yet to win a popular ballot.

The recent violence threatens to destabilise the country, which has 108 million residents from about 80 different ethnic groups.

Abiy has lost the support of many in the Oromo community, who have complained about continued persecution and marginalisation.

Shortly before his death, Hundessa told the Oromia Media Network, a broadcaster that has been critical of Abiy, that he faced constant death threats.

Four suspects have been arrested over the killing, but the motive remains unclear. Abiy said the assassins were trying “to kill Ethiopia”. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "Covid-19 cases in US exceed three million".

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

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