March 21, 2020 - No. 9

Our Security Lies in the Fight to Defend the Rights of All

Beware of the Fend-for-Yourself
Aspect of Federal Economic Response
to COVID-19

Government of Canada's COVID-19 Economic Response Plan


Canada's Plan to Mobilize Industry to Fight COVID-19

- K.C. Adams -

What Can We Expect?

Civilian Airlines Grounded

Workers Speak About Their Concerns

Problems with the Employment Insurance Measures

- Pierre Chénier -

• Public Sector Workers' Serious Concerns About
Ministerial Order from the Quebec Government

- Geneviève Royer -

Emergency Measures Should be Used to Address Crisis
in Seniors' Care in British Columbia

- Barbara Biley -

For Your Information  

"A Billion Reasons to Care" --
Report of the Office of the Seniors Advocate

International Cooperation to Help Countries Cope

Cuba's Timely Assistance to British Passenger Ship

• Cuba a Beacon of International Solidarity and
Medical Excellence in Fight Against COVID-19

China Bolsters Global Effort to Combat Coronavirus

U.S. Imperialists' Utter Contempt for Human Life

• U.S. Imposes New Sanctions on Iran

IMF Refuses Aid to Venezuela

For Your Information

Update on Global Pandemic

Our Security Lies in the Fight to Defend the Rights of All

Beware of the Fend-for-Yourself Aspect of
Federal Economic Response to COVID-19

This past week the federal government made a series of announcements which it says are aimed at coping with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government ministers have repeatedly stated that their aim is not perfection but speed and asked for the cooperation of the public, if implementation does not go smoothly. Overall, an impression is created that the government has everything under control and Canadians can rest assured they are being looked after. 

What criteria should Canadians use to draw warranted conclusions about the government's measures? Clearly, a neo-liberal government is not going to change its spots and suddenly solve problems in any manner that is not advantageous to the narrow private interests which have long-since seized control of all state institutions, including the political parties that form a cartel party system that keeps the broad masses of the people disempowered.

This issue of TML Weekly is organized to inform Canadians about the government's measures so that they can draw warranted conclusions about these measures and make sure they do not hand over the initiative for their own well-being to anyone but themselves. It is urgent this crisis be resolved in their favour, not in favour of the rich and powerful. In this regard, the government's economic response to COVID-19 falls into two broad areas. The first category is stopgap social programs directed at the working class, and small and medium-sized businesses, which on first inspection appear inadequate. Besides which, everyone is forced to fend for themselves to access these things. The second category is the pay-the-rich schemes to help the financial oligarchy weather the storm. Within this, are the measures that offer those companies able to provide the goods and services required to fight the virus with incentives to do so.

The stopgap measures are said to give workers, including those not covered under Employment Insurance, some financial assistance during the crisis. They also offer a small amount of one-time additional funds to families under the GST rebate program for low income workers and child benefit payments, temporary tax relief for individuals and businesses, and a capped rebate to small enterprises for ten per cent of workers' wages. The measures to extend Employment Insurance to those not normally covered are not permanent and not adequate either. Some consider all these measures a cruel joke played on those in need. Besides the amounts being insufficient to meet the need, they are far from a guaranteed livelihood for many who, even when there is no coronavirus epidemic, are already in dire need.

Despite the appearance that the government is stepping up to the plate, the refusal of the ruling elite to increase investments in social programs to meet the needs of the people under all conditions has created many of the problems Canadians now face, including those of a health care system and public service ill-equipped to meet the current challenges.

The pay-the-rich schemes to protect the big financial institutions from losses arising from defaults, bankruptcies and other problems during the pandemic are similar to those during the economic crisis of 2008. They are meant to preserve the private wealth, privilege and power of the ruling imperialist elite.

The federal government ignores the two greatest strengths of the modern economy of industrial mass production: the modern educated working class and the socialized interrelated nature of the productive forces.

Not only is production socialized as a matter of fact but the modern educated working class is more than willing to be mobilized on a mass scale to deal with the crisis. A lot is said by government ministers to praise the front-line workers in all sectors of the economy but in the absence of a spirit and atmosphere of equilibrium and mutual respect and control, needless suffering is the rule, not the exception. The ruling class is, of course, not inclined to permit the unleashing of the power of the working class. Its entire system is kept in place by preserving an oppressed reserve army of unemployed and underemployed captured within an imperialist labour market. This outlook comes to the ruling class naturally, coronavirus crisis or no coronavirus crisis. One would not rationally expect them to resolve a coronavirus crisis in any manner other than the one which shores up their own narrow private interests. If this protects the population as well, all the better. If not, too bad. The outlook and modus operandi of those who own and control the productive forces is to buy workers' capacity to work and use it to preserve and enlarge their private fortunes even during periods of crisis. The ruling elite see no utility in mobilizing the working class to work if that work does not preserve or enlarge their private wealth and power.

A conclusion that will once again emerge from this crisis, as it does in all the recurring crises of the imperialist system, is that private ownership and control of the socialized economy of industrial mass production in fewer and fewer hands blocks the economy from unleashing its latent and complete power of extended reproduction on a mass scale to meet the needs of the people and humanize the social and natural environment.

The pay-the-rich schemes to funnel state funds into the coffers of the private institutions of the financial oligarchy are the refusal of the ruling elite to change the direction of the economy to one that favours the working people, the interrelated socialized economy, and society. This reveals that the people must empower themselves. An immediate demand should be that all the state public funds that have been and are being doled out to the big banks and other monopolies of the imperialists should be used instead to establish public financial and other enterprises to eliminate serving private interests as a consideration and aim. Public banks should become the primary source of borrowing for Canadian individuals, businesses and even governments, eliminating public debts to private lenders and their onerous and parasitical interest payments.

The billions of dollars to respond to the COVID-19 crisis should be used to mobilize the working class to greatly increase the public service, to establish dedicated supply chains of goods and services, expand the health care system and long-term care for seniors, and to look after those in quarantine or otherwise in need of help such as the homeless. Funds should also flow to the Indigenous nations to further their economic development and improve their social programs under their control and direction and strengthen their defence against the pandemic. The production of health care supplies, especially those needed during the emergency, and pharmaceuticals and their necessary related scientific research, should be put in the hands of public, not private, enterprises. It is made to appear that putting all aspects of health care production, supply and delivery into private hands with even the army mobilized, is a responsible way to go. It is in fact self-serving, as well as socially irresponsible and irrational, to use the resources of the state to advance private interests.

The current crisis reveals that the Canadian economy needs internal strength and local control that does not depend on trade from abroad for basic goods other than what cannot be produced in Canada, such as certain food. An economy under the control of Canadians would also manage the distribution of goods and services at the wholesale level and the retail level as well, if the current big grocery enterprises, for example, continue to prove incompetent and often more interested in real estate, land speculation and development than distributing food. Prices at the wholesale and retail levels should closely match their prices of production and not those dictated by the global financial oligarchy. Much can be done now to deal with the emergency in ways that favour the people and a new pro-social direction for the economy.

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Government of Canada's COVID-19
Economic Response Plan

The federal government has announced $27 billion in payments to Canadian workers and businesses. The Prime Minister has recalled Parliament, as most of these measures require Parliamentary approval and royal assent.

Other measures announced March 18 or earlier, include deferrals in paying taxes and direct support for the biggest financial institutions.

Below are extracts from the government's website

Temporary Income Support for Workers and Parents

For Canadians without paid sick leave (or similar workplace accommodation) who are sick, quarantined or forced to stay home to care for children, the Government will waive the one-week waiting period for those individuals in imposed quarantine that claim Employment Insurance (EI) sickness benefits.

Workers will no longer be required to provide a medical certificate to access EI sickness benefits.

Emergency Support Benefit

For Canadians who lose their jobs or face reduced hours as a result of COVID’s impact, the Government is introducing an Emergency Support Benefit delivered through the CRA to provide up to $5 billion in support to workers who are not eligible for EI and who are facing unemployment.

Emergency Care Benefit

The Canada Revenue Agency will provide up to $900 bi-weekly for up to 15 weeks. The payment will go to workers who do not qualify for EI sickness benefits, including those classified as self-employed.

The criteria to qualify:

- quarantined or sick with COVID-19;
- taking care of a family member who is sick with COVID-19, such as an elderly parent; and
- parents with children who require care or supervision due to school closures, and are unable to earn employment income.

Applications will become available in April 2020, and require Canadians to attest that they meet the eligibility requirements. They will need to re-attest every two weeks to reconfirm their eligibility.

Three channels to apply for the benefit:

- by accessing it on their Canada Revenue Agency MyAccount secure portal;
- by accessing it from their secure My Service Canada Account; and
- by calling a toll free number equipped with an automated application process not yet available.

Additional Measures

The government will extend to 76 weeks the EI Work Sharing Program, which provides EI benefits to workers who agree to reduce their normal working hours as a result of developments beyond the control of their employers. No further information is available at this time.

The government will pay, by early May 2020, an average of $400 for eligible individuals and $600 for couples through a one-time doubling of the Goods and Services Tax credit. Around 12 million families will receive the benefit based on their 2018 tax return.

For over 3.5 million eligible families with children, the Government will increase the maximum annual Canada Child Benefit by $300 per child to be paid in May and only for the 2019-20 benefit year.

The government will provide $305 million for a new distinctions-based Indigenous Community Support Fund to address immediate needs in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation communities.

The government has placed a six-month interest-free moratorium on the repayment of Canada Student Loans for all individuals currently in the process of repaying these loans.

The government will reduce the required minimum withdrawals from Registered Retirement Income Funds by 25 per cent for 2020 for seniors who have reached pension age. Similar rules will apply to individuals receiving variable benefit payments under a defined contribution Registered Pension Plan.

The Reaching Home program dealing with homelessness will be given $157.5 million. These funds are earmarked for shelters to help them reduce overcrowding and allow for social distancing.

Women's shelters and sexual assault centres will receive up to $50 million to help prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in their facilities.

Tax Payment and Filing Deferrals

The Canada Revenue Agency will defer the filing due date for the 2019 tax returns of individuals (other than trusts) until June 1, 2020. A later filing could delay payment under the Goods and Services Tax Credit or the Canada Child Benefit.

For trusts having a taxation year ending on December 31, 2019, the return filing due date will be deferred until May 1, 2020.

The Canada Revenue Agency will allow all taxpayers (individual and corporate) to defer, until after August 31, 2020, the payment of any income tax amounts that become owing on or after [March 18] and before September 2020. This relief would apply to tax balances due, as well as instalments, under Part I of the Income Tax Act. No interest or penalties will accumulate on these amounts during this period.

Effective immediately the Canada Revenue Agency will recognize electronic signatures as having met the signature requirements of the Income Tax Act, as a temporary administrative measure. This provision applies to authorization forms T183 or T183CORP, which are forms that are signed in person by millions of Canadians every year to authorize tax preparers to file taxes.

Role of Financial Institutions

Canada's large banks have confirmed support for those having financial difficulties will include up to a six-month payment deferral for mortgages, and the opportunity for relief on other credit products. [The support is on a case-by-case basis, and conditional and vague -- TML Ed. Note.]

Mortgage Default Management Tools

The Government, through  the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), is providing increased flexibility for homeowners facing financial difficulties to defer mortgage payments on homeowner CMHC-insured mortgage loans. CMHC will permit lenders to allow payment deferral beginning immediately. [This measure is also vague and conditional -- TML Ed. Note.]

Support to Businesses

The government announced measures to support businesses that are in addition to those presented on March 13, by Minister of Finance Bill Morneau, Governor of the Bank of Canada Stephen Poloz, and Superintendent of Financial Institutions Jeremy Rudin.

Supporting Canadian Business through the Canada Account

The government is changing the Canada Account so that the Minister of Finance will be able to determine the limit of the Canada Account in order to deal with exceptional circumstances. The Canada Account is administered by Export Development Canada and is used by the government to support exporters when deemed to be in the national interest. This will allow the government to provide additional support to Canadian companies through loans, guarantees or insurance policies.

Helping Businesses Keep Their Workers

The government is proposing to provide eligible small employers a temporary wage subsidy for a period of three months. The subsidy will be equal to 10 per cent of remuneration paid during that period, up to a maximum subsidy of $1,375 per employee and $25,000 per employer.

Businesses will be able to benefit immediately from this support by reducing their remittances of income tax withheld on their employees' remuneration. Employers benefiting from this measure will include corporations eligible for the small business deduction, as well as non-profit organizations and charities.

Flexibility for Businesses Filing Taxes

The Canada Revenue Agency will allow all businesses to defer, until after August 31, 2020, the payment of any income tax amounts that become owing on or after [March 18] and before September 2020. This relief would apply to tax balances due, as well as instalments, under Part I of the Income Tax Act. No interest or penalties will accumulate on these amounts during this period.

The Canada Revenue Agency will not contact any small or medium businesses to initiate any post assessment GST/HST or Income Tax audits for the next four weeks. For the vast majority of businesses, the Canada Revenue Agency will temporarily suspend audit interaction with taxpayers and representatives.

Ensuring Businesses Have Access to Credit

The Business Credit Availability Program will allow the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada to provide more than $10 billion of additional support.

The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions announced it is lowering the Domestic Stability Buffer by 1.25 per cent of risk-weighted assets, effective immediately. This action will allow Canada's large banks to inject $300 billion of additional lending into the economy.

The Bank of Canada has cut its interest rate to 0.75 per cent.

Supporting Financial Market Liquidity

The government has announced an Insured Mortgage Purchase Program. The government will purchase up to $50 billion of insured mortgage pools through the CMHC. This is intended to provide long-term stable funding to banks and mortgage lenders.

The Bank of Canada will broaden eligible collateral for its term repo facility to include the full range of collateral eligible under the Standing Liquidity Facility, with the exception of the non-mortgage loan portfolio. This expansion of eligible collateral will provide support to funding conditions for financial institutions by providing a backstop to regular private funding.

The Bank also announced that it stands ready, as a proactive measure, to provide support to the Canada Mortgage Bond (CMB) market. This would include, as required, purchases of CMBs in the secondary market. Similar to the increase in Government of Canada bond buybacks, this will support market liquidity and price discovery.

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Canada's Plan to Mobilize Industry
to Fight COVID-19

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada's Plan to Mobilize Industry to fight COVID-19. He said the plan will "create pathways to deploy resources to domestic manufacturers and businesses so they can help during this critical time. [...] The Plan introduces new measures to directly support these businesses to rapidly scale up production or re-tool their manufacturing lines to develop products made in Canada that will help in the fight against COVID-19. These products could include critical health and safety supplies and equipment, including personal protective equipment, sanitization products, diagnostic and testing products, and disease tracking technology. [...] It focuses on domestic capacity building, innovative solutions, and procurement of essential supplies."

The plan will "build the industrial capability needed to manufacture critical supplies at scale in Canada." The "resources" the government will "deploy" are mostly state public funds available through Canada's existing industrial and innovation programs. To qualify for funds, a company must agree to "prioritize the fight against COVID-19."

The Strategic Innovation Fund will make funds available to "Canadian companies" and the National Research Council of Canada will "expedite research and development with small and medium-sized enterprises."

The government wants to use its Innovation Superclusters "to tap into a national network of 1,800 members, and Innovative Solutions Canada to help companies commercialize products more quickly."

Commercialize means to put the "critical supplies" on the marketplace for sale or to fill government orders.

The plan will "deliver direct support [funds] to key Canadian companies that are working on large-scale and later-stage research and development projects aimed, in the immediate term, at producing countermeasures to COVID-19." Which "Canadian companies" are doing such a thing, if any, is debatable as COVID-19 is a relatively recent phenomenon. The plan "challenges innovative companies to develop research-based solutions, technologies, and products that can address a variety of COVID-19 issues."

This exposes a basic weakness of the imperialist economic system. The people have no control over the companies, whether innovative or not. The cartel parties in the parliaments horse trade over which big companies and financial oligarchs whose representatives they are should get the biggest share of the pie. The aim of private companies is to make money. This aim directs their research and development of products but they are happy for the government subsidies. To counter such narrow aims -- making money at the expense of the human factor/social consciousness --  the government would have to introduce public enterprises under its control with a different aim of research and development of products to meet the health care needs of the people and not private profit.

The present aim of maximum private profit has obviously failed with regard to having a secure supply chain of necessary health care products or it would not be a matter of discussion and concern. In contrast, public health supply and pharmaceutical enterprises would have a particular aim at this time: to fight COVID-19. They would also have a general aim to serve the health care needs of the people under all circumstances through establishing a domestic self-reliant supply chain under Canadian control stretching from research to production and seamless planned distribution based on recognized demand.

The federal plan wants to "source equipment needed to support Canada's response to COVID-19 here in Canada. The Government of Canada will use existing supply arrangements and innovative, flexible procurement approaches." But these "existing supply arrangements" are those that have created the problem. None of the big health care suppliers, including pharmaceutical companies, are Canadian nor do they even have much of a research or manufacturing presence in Canada. The last truly independent Canadian pharmaceutical research, development, and production company was Connaught Medical Research Laboratories, connected with the University of Toronto. Connaught Laboratories was famous for its production of the diphtheria antitoxin and discovery and mass production of insulin in the 20th century but fell victim to the initial onslaught of the anti-social offensive. The federal government privatized it in 1986, with a global pharmaceutical monopoly seizing its facilities, research and scientists.

The government plan says, "It is also reaching out to suppliers to identify and purchase equipment, supplies, and services needed for Canada's response to COVID-19. With a view to longer-term support, the Government of Canada will ensure procurement flexibility to support innovation and build domestic manufacturing capacity to supply critical health supplies to Canadians."

The problem with the plan lies in the absence of control, on the part of even the government, let alone the people. These companies are privately owned and controlled and obsessed with their aim of maximum profit in competition with others to make their particular empire dominant. Secrecy surrounding their research is paramount. The ownership of most of them and the ensuing private profit they expropriate is bound up in shares traded on the global stock markets. The stock prices have taken a pounding since the seriousness of the pandemic became known and the economy went into crisis. The owners of the company shares want their companies to be put back on track to make maximum profit and expand the market value of their stock and the market share of their companies in competition with others. That is the aim that will dictate their decisions. The fine words the government may say about "supplying critical health supplies to Canadians" are in contradiction with the reality of the imperialist system and its aim and demands. Any "supplying" will be at the discretion and prices dictated by the companies to ensure private profit and the dominance of their particular empires.

The government's fine words also reveal an absence of immediate purpose and direction to confront the problems in the health care system as they pose themselves. The country needs certain health supplies right now, including testing kits to track the spread of the virus, as well as the appropriate clothing, respirators, etc. The government has the power to commandeer factories and manufacture the necessary products right now and at market prices determined by their prices of production and not the global speculators. The government should use its power to take over manufacturing facilities and begin immediately to produce what is needed to serve the public good. The issues of ownership and making private profit should not be a factor at this time.

As far as research is concerned, the lack of Canadian control over scientific research is a result of years of wrecking of public research and the privatization of whatever research councils that used to exist and the complete lack of independence of university research from the dictate of the global financial oligarchy and what it wants.

The National Research Council of Canada is a shell of its former self, but what is left should be ramped up to deal with the concrete problems and challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic presents. The government has the power to commandeer scientists and research from the private sector. Scientists should be asked to join the National Research Council on specific tasks and bring with them their already existing research on such issues as more efficient COVID-19 testing kits and a vaccine.

The Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada are capable of determining specific needs right now that should be acted upon and produced, which include personal protective equipment, sanitization products, diagnostic and testing products, therapeutics, pharmaceuticals and disease tracking technology. The government must commandeer existing factories to accomplish this essential task. Relying on the financial oligarchy to do so is a terrible gaffe that will have serious consequences.

The government says that the National Research Council's Industrial Research Assistance Program has relationships with researchers across Canada. Those researchers should be united and moulded into a team dedicated to solve the country's most pressing health needs.

The people's immediate health care needs should not be viewed as a marketplace to enrich a few at the expense of the many and public health. As with any endeavour, the devil is in the details. In the case of COVID-19, we need sufficient testing to see how the virus is spreading and containment measures. After everything is said and done, until a sufficient indicative percentage of the population has developed immunity, either because they have had the illness and survived or there is a vaccine, then social isolation to curb the spread of the disease has to be maintained.

(With files from PMO March 20, 2020 press release.)

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What Can We Expect?

The government has thus far given little orientation of what Canadians can expect next, after they complete their 14-day self-isolation and their children's scheduled time away from school comes to an end. The fact is that life will not go "back to normal" after the self-isolation ends and everyone will have to start taking stock of what comes next.

U.S. epidemiologist Larry Brilliant explains what we are facing in terms of bringing the coronavirus under control. The first step is to flatten the curve. This means that first we want to spread out the disease over time. "By slowing it down or flattening it, we're not going to decrease the total number of cases, we're going to postpone many cases, until we get a vaccine -- which we will, because there's nothing in the virology that makes me frightened that we won't get a vaccine in 12 to 18 months. Eventually, we will get to the epidemiologist gold ring," Brilliant explains.

"That means, A) a large enough quantity of us have caught the disease and become immune. And B) we have a vaccine. The combination of A plus B is enough to create herd immunity, which is around 70 or 80 per cent." He adds:

"I hold out hope that we get an antiviral for COVID-19 that is curative, but in addition is prophylactic. It's certainly unproven and it's certainly controversial, and certainly a lot of people are not going to agree with me. But I offer as evidence two papers in 2005, one in Nature and one in Science. They both did mathematical modeling with influenza, to see whether saturation with just Tamiflu of an area around a case of influenza could stop the outbreak. And in both cases, it worked. I also offer as evidence the fact that at one point we thought HIV/AIDS was incurable and a death sentence. Then, some wonderful scientists discovered antiviral drugs, and we've learned that some of those drugs can be given prior to exposure and prevent the disease. Because of the intense interest in getting [COVID-19] conquered, we will put the scientific clout and money and resources behind finding antivirals that have prophylactic or preventive characteristics that can be used in addition to [vaccines]."

Brilliant points out that increasing the amount of testing is crucial. "Tests would make a measurable difference. We should be doing a stochastic process random probability sample of the country to find out where the hell the virus really is. Because we don't know. Maybe Mississippi is reporting no cases because it's not looking. How would they know? Zimbabwe reports zero cases because they don't have testing capability, not because they don't have the virus. We need something that looks like a home pregnancy test, that you can do at home." 

He points out that, "The world is not going to begin to look normal until three things have happened. One, we figure out whether the distribution of this virus looks like an iceberg, which is one-seventh above the water, or a pyramid, where we see everything. If we're only seeing right now one-seventh of the actual disease because we're not testing enough, and we're just blind to it, then we're in a world of hurt. Two, we have a treatment that works, a vaccine or antiviral. And three, maybe most important, we begin to see large numbers of people -- in particular nurses, home health care providers, doctors, policemen, firemen, and teachers who have had the disease -- are immune, and we have tested them to know that they are not infectious any longer. And we have a system that identifies them, either a concert wristband or a card with their photograph and some kind of a stamp on it. Then we can be comfortable sending our children back to school, because we know the teacher is not infectious. And instead of saying 'No, you can't visit anybody in nursing homes,' we have a group of people who are certified that they work with elderly and vulnerable people, and nurses who can go back into the hospitals and dentists who can open your mouth and look in your mouth and not be giving you the virus. When those three things happen, that's when normalcy will return."


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Civilian Airlines Grounded

Air Canada, WestJet and Porter have all grounded much of their fleets, news reports inform. What is not discussed are the ramifications of the cargo void this creates.

More than half of the world's air cargo business is carried on passenger aircraft, Amsterdam-based air cargo analyst WorldACD writes. That volume rises to more than 60 per cent for cargo shipped by plane between the United States and Europe.

This means that travel bans imposed on both sides of the Atlantic will "cause a severe drop in capacity offered," the firm told Morning Trade. That puts increased pressure on express delivery firms like UPS, FedEx and DHL to take up the slack and has left importers of high-value items like medicine or perishable goods, such as fish and other food products, scrambling to make new arrangements, John Drake, executive director for supply chain policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said.

"You're talking about medicines for diabetics, insulin for example, and other critical products where there may be a limited supply in the U.S.," Drake said. The ability to ship those goods in the cargo holds of passenger planes "has largely dried up," he added.

The severity of the situation was reflected in a tweet on March 18 from the International Civil Aviation Organization, an international standard-setting body for aviation at the United Nations, which wrote: "There is an urgent need to ensure the sustainability of the global air cargo supply chain and to maintain the availability of critical medications and equipment such as ventilators, masks, & other health & hygiene items which will help reduce the spread of #COVID19."

What it means is that Canada could commandeer grounded planes and crew to move cargo internally in Canada and to bring into Canada crucial food, medicine and health supplies from Asia, Europe, Mexico and elsewhere. China is offering medical supplies to the world now that its internal demand has eased.

In its March 21 announcement, the Trudeau government said it is working with Canadian airlines and foreign governments to provide access to commercial flights for Canadian travellers who want to return home. The flights will prioritize stranded travellers who are Canadian citizens, Canadian permanent residents, or immediate family members of Canadian citizens. In addition, only travellers who are asymptomatic will be allowed to board, and all travellers will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days upon entry. "In the first series of flights to help Canadians return home, Air Canada will operate a special flight today from Morocco. Flights will also be planned for Peru and Spain, and other countries as soon as possible. Factors such as the number of Canadians, airspace closures, and the local situation are being taken into consideration in order to identify the locations for these flights. We are currently working with Air Canada and are engaged with other airlines as we assess global needs," the government press release informed.

(With files from U.S. International Trade)

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Workers Speak About Their Concerns

Problems with the Employment Insurance Measures

The $82 billion aid package for Canadians announced by the Trudeau government on March 18, to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, includes $27 billion for direct supports to Canadians. Some of the measures concern Employment Insurance (EI) and it is already clear that they are inadequate.

Access to EI is a problem that successive governments have refused to address. Only about 40 per cent of unemployed workers are eligible for EI. During this crisis, what is needed is a social program that provides a guaranteed income to all those who find themselves without a job. In March alone, the projected unemployment rate is expected to leap to over seven per cent, with an additional 300,000 workers becoming unemployed. These are workers who could all be mobilized to work safely in public enterprises serving the people and economy at Canadian standard wages and benefits. Instead, the government has created two programs -- the Emergency Care Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit -- making it clear that these are temporary and of an exceptional character.

There are three EI measures in the aid package:

1. The government is waiving the one-week waiting period for those workers in imposed quarantine who are eligable to claim EI sickness benefits. This is a temporary measure that takes effect as of March 15.

2. The government is waiving the requirement that a medical certificate be provided to access EI sickness benefits.

3. The government is implementing the EI Work Sharing Program, which provides EI benefits to workers who agree to reduce their normal working hours as a result of developments beyond the control of their employers, extending the eligibility of such agreements from 38 to 76 weeks, easing eligibility requirements, and streamlining the application process.

For example, the government is waiving the waiting period before a second request for shared work can be made. This was announced by the Prime Minister on March 11, and repeated on March 18.

Those who need to access these measures say there are immediate issues that require answers. Activists who work with defence organizations of unemployed workers are trying to sort out various things. For example, there is no announced extension of the period of time during which workers will receive benefits.

In 2018, as a measure to address the problem of the "black hole" faced by seasonal workers -- the period of time during which these workers are without income after having exhausted EI benefits and not yet being back at work -- the Trudeau government offered supplemental income to those workers who would get training during that period. This was not a sound measure because training does not solve the problem of the "black hole" facing workers who live in areas in which seasonal work is the main or only work. And what will happen to these workers now that the training institutions have closed because of the pandemic?

Workers in the oil industry in the west are also facing a serious problem. Unemployment in their ranks is increasing because of the crisis in that industry, a crisis compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The duration of their benefits and the benefits of all workers should cover their actual needs within this crisis situation.

Can we expect that these workers will be protected under the new Emergency Support Benefit which is said to be a program for those who are not eligible for EI? No details have been provided.

While they are struggling to find out exactly what benefits the new Emergency Care Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit will provide and how to access them, the defence organizations of unemployed workers maintain that immediate reforms are needed in the EI regime to make sure that all unemployed workers are protected.

For example, they are demanding that the Canadian government address the issue of the long delays (sometimes many months) before a benefit claimant gets a decision on their claim. This is far from a simple matter of waiving the waiting period so that workers get the benefits to which they are entitled. Service Canada people are already overwhelmed and have been for some time. This is a problem which must be addressed on a permanent basis. How will the new claims be processed in a timely fashion by a system already seriously backlogged?

Defence organizations are also demanding that the threshold of accessibility be drastically reduced so that more workers are eligible for EI benefits. At present, a worker needs to have 600 insurable hours of work to qualify for sickness benefits. For regular benefits, the number of insurable hours required to qualify runs between 420 and 700 hours, depending on the official regional unemployment rate decreed by the government. This requirement is problematic because it is an arbitrary figure arrived at in part by merging regions that may have very little in common in terms of their industries and economic development. Of equal concern is the fact that less than one per cent of workers who are called self-employed are eligible for EI because they are considered to be outside of an employer-employee relationship. So what becomes of all of these existing problems and how are individual workers supposed to navigate all of this?

One of the defence organizations in Quebec, the Autonomous Movement in Solidarity with the Unemployed (MASSE), is demanding that the threshold of eligibility across the country be 350 hours of work, that benefits last a minimum of 35 weeks (currently they range from 14 to 45 weeks) and that they be based on a minimum of 70 per cent of the average weekly earnings (currently 55 per cent). Other defence organizations have different specific targets while also demanding that the threshold of accessibility be drastically reduced. The National Council of the Unemployed, also based in Quebec, and the Action Committee on Employment Insurance for Seasonal Workers in New Brunswick are demanding an immediate threshold of eligibility of 420 hours of work for 35 weeks of benefits for areas with seasonal economies. The threshold is currently often higher than 650 hours in these areas depending on the official unemployment rate declared by the federal government. 

The emergency measures taken by the government will not miraculously get rid of all these problems unemployed workers face as a result of the fend-for-oneself system governments have enforced during the cutbacks, which are an integral part of neo-liberal "austerity" measures. This means that during the crisis, the demands of the defence organizations of the unemployed and organized workers must be taken seriously. Appropriate measures must be taken which actually deliver for the working people. The direction has to be to sustain and guarantee the livelihood of all as a matter of right, implementing modern social programs through which people can affirm their humanity. While the measures sound good on paper, those who face the crisis of unemployment know that they are forced to fend for themselves and, in the end, are not provided with a living stipend. They are not, like the deputy prime minister kept repeating, small problems of implementation that Canadians should put up with in the name of the greater good.

Not One Person Must Be Left to Fend for Themselves!
Every Unemployed Worker Must Receive a Suitable Stipend!

Pierre Chénier is Secretary of the Workers' Centre of the Communist party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist).

(Photos: J. Poirier, CUPE)

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Public Sector Workers' Serious Concerns About
Ministerial Order from the Quebec Government

Public sector workers are expressing serious concerns about the content of Ministerial Order 2020-04 published on March 15 by Quebec Minister of Health and Social Services Danielle McCann, which talks about suspending clauses of their collective agreements. This ministerial order was published in accordance with the decree issued by the Government of Quebec, on March 13, declaring a state of health emergency throughout Quebec and granting exceptional powers to its Minister of Health, as described in the section 123 of the Public Health Act.

Central to the ministerial order is the issue of providing childcare services to workers who are deemed to be essential. The order quotes the decree which provides that "childcare services must continue to be organized and provided for a child if one of the child’s parents is employed by or exercises a profession in the health and social services network, including in private professional practice, community pharmacies and pre-hospital emergency services, or is a police officer, firefighter, paramedic, correctional services officer or special constable." Since the publication of the order, the list of workers deemed essential, that is posted on the government website dedicated to information on COVID-19, has grown.

While public sector workers are fully mobilized to contain the disease, they have expressed serious concerns over the order which says that "Notwithstanding the provisions of the collective agreements that apply to public service employees, a person  may be reassigned to another function or another place, as needed, even if the person’s level of employment is not respected."

The order further specifies that the labour contracts between the school boards and all unions are amended to allow that the work schedules prescribed in collective agreements no longer have to be respected, "to allow the employer to meet needs" and that "the articles on the granting of remuneration or compensation that is additional to the remuneration or compensation paid for normal hours and overtime when services must be maintained, in particular by reason of a force majeure, do not apply."

According to the unions, there was no consultation with them before declaring that the rules governing part of the performance and remuneration of their duties were changed. They learned about it by reading the decree.

The Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), which represents nearly 200,000 workers, the majority of whom work in the public sector, immediately warned the Legault government that the need "to respond quickly to the crisis to ensure the health and safety of the population, must not be done at the expense of the basic rights of the personnel. We reiterate that it is extremely important to ensure the mobilization and commitment of workers to maintain essential services and ensure an effective fight against the pandemic. We therefore urge the Legault government to be cautious and to avoid adopting extreme measures, without consultation, which could have the opposite effect."

The National Union of Employees of the Montreal School Board (SNEE-CSN) also spoke out. The organization represents housekeeping, maintenance, transportation and cafeteria staff of the Montreal School Board. Those are the workers who work daily to clean and maintain schools and who are currently doing a tremendous amount of work to disinfect every room in every school to make them safe for the return of students and education staff. The SNEE says that it is with pride that all of its members respond as one to their duties as citizens. It also notes that "The use of these measures [to suspend collective agreements] can only be done as a last resort and after having done everything possible to avoid it. This is not a management tool to facilitate the work of our managers, but rather an exceptional measure that cannot be used lightly. "

The views of public sector workers must be respected. They are not talking about things up in the air when they speak out against decrees which impose conditions with which the workers do not agree, and which become instruments of neo-liberal management in the hands of the authorities. This is how so-called exceptional conditions become the norm, such as compulsory overtime among nurses. The argument of the Government of Quebec, that it already has exceptional powers under the law and that it is just adopting the regulations that implement these powers, is not acceptable. 

The opinion and voice of workers, their say in the conditions under which their services are delivered in emergency situations is not only a question of right but a question of ensuring the success of emergency measures. Public sector workers have been maintaining social programs and public services for more than 30 years against all odds in the face of the anti-social offensive of the rich and their governments. Today it is they who are on the front lines of the defence of public services and the population in this pandemic. Their voices, expressed in their organizations, cannot be ignored. The urgency of the situation makes it essential that the experience and the solutions that are proposed by frontline workers be respected and implemented.

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Emergency Measures Should be Used to Address Crisis in Seniors' Care in British Columbia

Meeting on the crisis in seniors' care, Comox Valley, February 24, 2020.

The neo-liberal anti-social measures that have been implemented by successive governments over the last several decades have resulted in a crisis in seniors' care in many parts of the country. The proliferation of private seniors' homes, many replacing what were public homes, has created a perfect storm, which has been activated in all its fury with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

A report issued on February 4 by the Office of the Seniors Advocate, entitled "A Billion Reasons to Care," proved, through analysis of the revenue and expenses of these homes, that a significant portion of the public funding that is given to private-for-profit operators specifically for care instead becomes part of the profit taken by the owners. This profit is generated by denying care to the seniors as well as overworking and underpaying the workers. Funding from the province accounts for $1.3 billion of the $1.4 billion in revenue the contracted homes generate annually. The balance of the funding comes from seniors in care, who pay 80 per cent of their after-tax income to a maximum of $3,278.80 per month, as well as from fund-raising and payment for outpatient services such as Adult Day Care programs, bathing for people from the community, etc. The report analyzed only privately owned and operated homes, both those operated by not-for-profit societies and those operated by private for-profit operators. The report did not analyze the homes operated by the Province through the regional Health Authorities.

Among the findings were that "the not-for-profit sector spends 59 per cent of its revenue on direct care compared with 49 per cent in the for-profit sector," that "the for-profit sector failed to deliver 207,000 hours of funded care and the not-for-profit sector provided 80,000 more hours of direct care than they were funded to deliver," and that "the for-profit sector spends an average of 17 per cent less per worked hour, and wages paid to care aide staff in the for-profit sector can be as much as 28 per cent below the industry standard."

Demonstration for public seniors' care,
Sechelt, 2016.

Over the last decades of the 20th century, a concerted and successful effort was made by health care unions to ensure that all workers were compensated at the same level, whether they worked in hospitals or seniors homes, both private and public. Prior to 2002 the vast majority of workers in hospitals and almost all seniors' homes -- whether owned and operated by the province, non-profits, including churches and community based societies, or a small number of private homes operated for profit -- received the same wages and benefits and were covered by one master collective agreement. Legislation passed in 2002 allowing the contracting out of health care services in hospitals and seniors' residences to private operators opened the health care sector to multinational corporations like Compass, Aramark, Sodexho and Acciona, which now provide food and housekeeping services in most hospitals. Subsequent legislation opened the door for the awarding of contracts for seniors' care homes to private operators, who themselves typically subcontract to other companies. The profits that are generated come directly from public funds provided by the government through suppression of wages and substandard services provided to seniors.

In many communities in British Columbia, there are significant problems with staffing levels and quality of care, cleaning and food in the corporate-owned homes. The largest operator is Retirement Concepts, a company which is owned by a multinational investment firm based in China. The purchase of the homes was approved by the federal government in 2017 and the previous owners now manage and operate the homes through West Coast Senior Housing Management. Since September of 2019, four of these homes have been put under administration by Health Authorities, three by Island Health -- in the Comox Valley, Nanaimo and Victoria -- and one by Interior Health, in Summerland.

Families of residents in care have spoken out in every community in the province, informing the Health Authorities and the Ministry of Health of the extent of the problems, including lack of care due to inadequate staff, facilities that are not cleaned properly, poor food and lack of stimulation and recreation activities. As an example, it took months of complaints from families and investigations by Licensing before the local Medical Health Officer ordered Island Health to put Comox Valley Seniors Village under administration. The Medical Health Officers in Nanaimo and Victoria subsequently issued similar orders and Nanaimo Seniors Village and Selkirk Seniors Village in Victoria were also put under administration. On February 24, it was reported that a fourth Retirement Concepts facility, Summerland Seniors Village, has been put under administration by the Interior Health Authority.

On a daily basis many of the private for-profit homes operate without sufficient staff to provide the level of care that is required by their contracts with the province, as confirmed by the report of the Office of the Seniors Advocate. On their part, the for-profit operators, through their organization, the BC Care Providers Association, have blamed the problem on difficulty in recruiting staff and lack of funding from the provincial government.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned an unacceptable situation into a crisis. On identification of the pandemic, immediate measures needed to be taken to increase staffing in order to provide increased and more rigorous cleaning, and to support seniors who are being required to stay in their rooms and avoid communal areas like dining rooms and lounges, exercise programs and outings. Instead what has happened is that the number of workers has decreased, not increased. Some workers who are casual have chosen not to accept shifts. Employers are also requiring that workers not work in more than one home and many who have the choice between working for lower wages and poorer conditions in a private home or working for industry standard wages in a Health Authority home are choosing the Health Authority home. As the needs of seniors increase due to the measures required to flatten the curve of the epidemic and treat those who become ill, the number of workers is decreasing.

The tragic consequences of this situation are seen in the COVID-19 outbreak at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, a private facility where subcontracting has resulted in three different employers operating in the home. Several residents have died, other residents and staff have been infected, and family members report an increasingly severe shortage of staff resulting in terrible living conditions for the residents and increasing danger for residents, staff and family members.

It's time for the province to listen to what communities and families have been telling them -- that it is the responsibility of the province to ensure that seniors in care receive necessary and dignified care and that the workers who provide that care receive industry standard wages, with adequate staff and appropriate training and supplies. It is not acceptable at any time that the province simply hands over the funds and refuses to take any responsibility for what the operators do with it. The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on seniors makes this situation an emergency. The province should use its emergency powers to put all seniors' homes that do not meet the standards of care under administration, which would permit Health Authority employees, workers from other sectors and new hires to be deployed where needed.

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For Your Information

"A Billion Reasons to Care" --
Report of the Office of the Seniors Advocate

Nanaimo meeting in defence of public senior's care, February 29, 2020.

On February 4, the Office of the Seniors Advocate for BC issued a 51-page report entitled "A Billion Reasons to Care: A Funding Review of Contracted Long-Term Care in BC." The report provides very important factual information about what happens to the public funds that are provided by the province to contracted care providers, both those which are not-for-profit societies and those that are private corporations whose aim is profit, most of which are part of a chain like Revera, Park Place or Retirement Concepts, each of which operate several homes in British Columbia.

The provincial government, through the five regional health authorities, owns and operates 33 per cent of the residential care beds in the province. It contracts with private operators in 174 long-term-care homes for the other 18,000 beds. Homes operated by for-profit companies make up 35 per cent and not-for-profit societies 32 per cent. The province provides funding for all long-term care facilities, a total of about $2 billion per year or which $1.3 billion goes to contracted operators.

The executive summary of the report notes the following "very significant differences in several expenditures" (between the not-for-profit and for-profit homes):

- The not-for-profit sector spends 59 per cent of its revenue on direct care compared with 49 per cent in the for-profit sector. This equals almost $10,000 or 24 per cent more per resident, per year spent on care in the not-for-profit sector.

- The for-profit sector failed to deliver 207,000 hours of funded care and the not-for-profit sector provided 80,000 more hours of direct care than they were funded to deliver.

- The for-profit sector generated 12 times the amount of profit/surplus generated by the not-for-profit sector ($34.4 million versus $2.8 million).

- The for-profit sector had high building expenses at 20 per cent of revenues compared to the not-for-profit sector at 9 per cent.

- There were 18 care homes with an annual profit in excess of $1 million and all but one was in the for-profit sector. These 18 care homes also expensed $23 million in capital building costs.

- The not-for-profit sector may not be receiving adequate compensation for its building capital given its low rate of both capital building costs and profit/surplus.

- The for-profit sector spends an average of 17 per cent less per worked hour, and wages paid to care aide staff in the for-profit sector can be as much as 28 per cent below the industry standard.
The report details some of the myriad ways in which private operators are able to use public funds to increase their profits while failing to meet even their contractual obligations to provide an agreed upon number of hours of care per resident. The report cites various ways in which the public authorities have failed to regulate and monitor private for-profit operators and ways in which the private operators have failed to meet the needs of the seniors in their care and placed impossible workload burdens on too few workers.

The conclusions reached by the Office of the Seniors Advocate in the report are basically that there are "financial incentives" in the current practices for funding in long-term care that "may be producing some unintended consequences" and that funding and financial reporting is "disjointed, unfair to the not-for-profit sector, and unaccountable to the public." The report recommends that five steps should be taken:

1) Funding for direct care must be spent on direct care. Remove the financial incentive for operations to do anything other than provide as many care hours as possible with the public money they receive to deliver direct care. If an operator can find staff who will work for lower wages than their funded rate, they should use their surplus funds to provide more hours of care or return the funding. Anything short of this will not provide operators with the incentives we need in today's labour market to ensure residents have consistent and sufficient care staff to meet their needs.

2) Monitoring for compliance with funded care hours must be more accurate. We need tighter standardized reporting for direct care hours. All beds need to be counted at 100 per cent occupancy and we need to verify self-reported working hours. Consideration needs to be given to regulation changes that will  empower licensing to monitor staffing levels similar to the current regulatory and licensing practices in licensed day care.

3) Define profit. There are a number of reported expenses that may or may not be fair and appropriate. There needs to be a decision about how to treat building capital along with management feeds, head office allocations, administrative expenses, and subcontracts with related parties. The decisions made need to be uniformly applied to all care homes in the province and to transparently demonstrate value for money to the taxpayer.

4) Standardize reporting for all care homes throughout BC. We need to be collecting the same information, using the same calculations and the same measurements, for all care homes regardless of health authority and we should report this at the provincial level.

5) Revenues and expenditures for publicly funded care homes should be available to the public. The public is entitled to know how their money is spent, in detail, and residents and families are entitled to know how many care hours are delivered by their care home.

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International Cooperation to Help Countries Cope

Cuba's Timely Assistance to
British Passenger Ship

Shortly before dawn on March 18, the British passenger ship MS Braemar of the Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, with over 1,000 passengers and crew aboard, docked in the port of Mariel, Cuba. Since March 12, the ship had been denied permission to dock in several of its scheduled ports of call around the Caribbean or in the U.S. by authorities of those countries, due to the fact that one of its passengers and four crew members had confirmed cases of COVID-19, with a further 28 passengers and 27 crew members, including a doctor, in isolation after displaying symptoms.

The Cuban government arranged for tour buses to transfer all those on board to Havana's José Martí international airport, where four chartered British Airways planes were waiting to fly them back to Britain that evening. Those without symptoms were flown on three of the planes to Heathrow airport in London. Those with flu-like symptoms, those who had tested positive for COVID-19 and their companions were taken aboard a separate flight to an airbase in England. Those not well enough to travel were given the opportunity to remain in Cuba for treatment.

The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement informing that its decision to receive the MS Braemar was in response to a March 16 request by the British government. It said that given the urgency of the situation and the risk to the life of those who were ill, the Cuban government decided to allow the ship to dock and to receive all those on board, while strictly following the protocols established by the World Health Organization and the Cuban Ministry of Public Health. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in conclusion, "These are times of solidarity, of understanding health as a human right, of reinforcing international cooperation to face our common challenges, values that are inherent in the humanistic practice of the Revolution and of our people."

Photos and videos posted on the internet showed passengers rejoicing at being told of Cuba's decision to assist them, with crew members holding up a banner reading "Te Quiero Cuba" (I love you, Cuba) as they disembarked the ship.

In a statement, Peter Deer, the managing director of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, expressed his gratitude to Cuba, saying, “I would like to extend my sincere thanks on behalf of Fred. Olsen to the Cuban Authorities, the Port of Mariel and the Cuban people for their support. Other countries would not allow Braemar to dock once we had confirmed cases of coronavirus on board. Thanks to their kindness we are now able to get people home. Your support will not be forgotten. From the bottom of my heart, thank you."

The British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Dominic Raab, also thanked the Cuban government in parliament on March 18, saying, "I spoke to the Cuban Foreign Minister twice over the weekend and we are very grateful to the Cuban government for swiftly enabling this operation and for their close cooperation to make sure it could be successful."

Writing in the Mexican daily, La Jornada, of Cuba's humanitarian action in throwing a lifeline to those aboard the ship, Cuban journalist Rosa Miriam Elizalde explains:

"I am very grateful to the Cuban government for agreeing to carry out this operation."

"The odyssey began when the British company Fred. Olsen's cruise ship arrived in Cartagena, where a
woman from the U.S. disembarked and was diagnosed shortly afterward with coronavirus. From that moment on, five Caribbean ports denied entry to the ship and the families of the cruise passengers turned to the media to express their fears for the fate of their loved ones and the possibility that they would be forced to make the long journey back to Europe, exposed to massive contagion and perhaps death on an industrial scale before the ship could reach Britain."

Elizalde writes of a passenger who posted videos and regular reports from the ship using the hashtag #DunkirkSpirit alluding to the evacuation of 330,000 allied soldiers from the coast of France in May 1940, at the beginning of World War II, when Hitler seemed invincible.

"For us, Dunkirk does not only speak of heroism, but of humanity. It means that there are solutions in the worst of circumstances, and this time we will have Cuba to thank for it," the passenger said.

Elizalde concludes her article, titled "Cuba Saves," drawing attention to the paradox of ships contracted by Cuba to import oil and food being harassed by the U.S., while ships with sick people onboard that nobody wants in their ports, including the U.S. which refused to let the British ship dock, receive solidarity and respect in Cuba.

Internationalist solidarity is not an exception but the rule for Cuba.

Command of the MS Braemar recognizes heroism of Cuban marine pilot
for helping the ship dock at the Port of Mariel.

(With files from Cubaperiodistas, The Nation, Prensa Latina, Cubadebate, La Jornada, Marine Executive, Al Jazeera, CNN. Photos: Cuban Ministry of Transport, @dianacuba, Bruno Roderiguez, Monrex, A. Padron Padilla)

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Cuba a Beacon of International Solidarity and Medical Excellence in Fight Against COVID-19

Cuban medical team of 50 arrives in Suriname March 20, 2020, to assist with COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 21, 53 physicians and nurses from Cuba's celebrated Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade of health professionals, trained in disaster medicine and infectious disease containment, arrived in Italy's northern Lombardy region at the request of its health authorities. They will join a dozen Chinese doctors to work in a new field hospital being built in Bergamo in Italy's hardest hit area, where over 63 per cent of the country's deaths due to COVID-19 and 42 per cent of its active cases are concentrated, with over 1,000 patients undergoing intensive treatment. It is the sixth contingent of the specialized brigade to go abroad to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and the first sent to Europe.

Other contingents of the brigade recently left to assist a number of countries in the Americas. One hundred forty-four doctors arrived on the weekend in Jamaica and 136 in Venezuela; five intensive care nurses recently arrived in Grenada and 51 health care professionals in Suriname. Those in Venezuela will be part of a group of 2,000 Cuban doctors working with communities there. Still others are already at work in Nicaragua. At the moment, Cuba has 28,000 medical professionals working on missions in 59 countries, the majority of which are affected by COVID-19.

Cuba's contributions to the fight against the global pandemic also extends to the scientific investigation taking place at its Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana where researchers are engaged in numerous studies of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19, and working on developing a vaccine for it. In the meantime, many countries have been asking Cuba to provide them with human recombinant interferon alfa-2b, the anti-viral medication developed at the centre, which has shown promise in the treatment of COVID-19 patients in China, south Korea and Germany.

Click to enlarge.

A recent report in the online publication Peoples' Dispatch, reports on the medication's use in combating COVID-19, calling Cuba "a beacon of international solidarity and medical excellence in leading the fight against the coronavirus" in spite of the vicious all-sided blockade the U.S. maintains against it.[1] It says that the interferon alfa-2b prevented thousands of deaths from the coronavirus in south Korea and Germany, both of which have reported low death rates -- especially Germany with a high incidence of the disease in its population. Given its promise for treating COVID-19, Cuba has already sent a team of doctors and supplies of interferon alfa-2b to Italy to work alongside Chinese experts. The medication is also being used in Panama, Venezuela and elsewhere, with Cuba having produced an adequate supply for treating thousands of patients at home as well if necessary.

Cuban-developed interferon alfa-2b has been produced in China since January 25 as part of a joint venture of the two countries and is one of 30 drugs chosen by the Chinese National Health Commission to combat the respiratory disease. It was first developed in 1986 by a team of researchers from the CIGB and has benefited thousands of Cuban patients. It is marketed as Heberon® Alfa R. and has been used as a treatment for HIV-AIDS, hepatitis B and C, herpes zoster (shingles), dengue and different types of cancers. The medication increases the natural production of interferon in the human body and strengthens the immune system of patients.

Doctor Luis Herrera, one of the creators of interferon alfa-2b, told teleSUR in an interview that the medication's main purpose is to avoid complications in patients, especially vulnerable and older people who are susceptible to or have a poor immune response.

Members of the Cuban Henry Reeve medical brigade arrive in Nicaragua, March 18, 2020.


1. "Cuba leads global efforts against COVID-19 in spite of blockade," Tanya Wadhwa, Peoples' Dispatch, March 16, 2020.

(With files from teleSUR, Prensa Latina, Agencia Cubana de Noticias, Radio Habana Cuba. Photos: Telesur, J. Vidal)

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China Bolsters Global Effort to
Combat Coronavirus

Assistance to Italy and Other EU Countries

Chinese and Cuban doctors arrive in Italy to help treat COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 12, a group of nine Chinese aid professionals arrived in Rome with tons of medical supplies, including 700 ventilators, monitors and defibrillators, as part of China's efforts to help Italy contain the novel coronavirus outbreak.

"This evening I wanted to show you the first aid arrived from China," Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio said during an emotional speech in a Facebook live broadcast, shortly after the Chinese team's landing. He pointed to his laptop which showed a group of Chinese nationals coming off the plane.

"These are the specialized medical staff who faced the coronavirus emergency in China, and at this moment have arrived in Rome," Di Maio said. "This is what we call solidarity."

Chinese medical team in Padua, Italy, March 18, 2020.

The expert team was organized by China's National Health Commission and the Red Cross Society. The group is the third sent abroad by China following previous ones to Iran and Iraq.

Also that week, medical protection supplies donated by Fosun Foundation of the Shanghai-based Fosun Group, Longfor Group and Beijing Taikang Yicai Foundation, including 5,500 protective suits and 40,000 N95 respirator masks, arrived in Milan, Italy.

On March 17, a cargo plane loaded with donated supplies departed from Hangzhou in eastern China and arrived at Liege Airport in Belgium. The goods were handed over to the French health ministry, said the Alibaba Foundation and the Jack Ma Foundation in a press release. On board the plane were also medical goods donated to other European countries, including Belgium and Slovenia.

Also on March 17, another batch of medical supplies sent by China arrived in Paris, including protective masks, surgical masks, protective suits and medical gloves, according to China's Ambassador to France Lu Shaye.

"At the crucial moment when China waged war against the epidemic, France provided us with precious support and assistance," said Lu. "Now as France and the whole of Europe are facing the serious challenge of the pandemic, China is ready to provide aid as far as possible."

"This is a gesture that must be appreciated," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. "We showed our solidarity with China by delivering protective equipment, especially to Wuhan. The Chinese, who are gradually starting to emerge from these difficulties, have returned this solidarity," Le Drian said.

"We're grateful for China's support," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on March 17. "We need each other's support in times of need."

Chinese medical team in Padua, Italy, March 17, 2020.

Team Sent to Iraq

A seven-member Chinese medical team is in Iraq and is going all out to help that country fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Their activities include advising the government to take stricter prevention measures, sharing China's treatment experience with their Iraqi counterparts and promoting pandemic control know-how among residents.

Iraq is in urgent need of nucleic acid test kits, team members told the Global Times. The dearth of test kits may have been the reason for fewer confirmed cases in the country, and therefore the Chinese experts are assisting Iraq in building a polymerase chain reaction laboratory in Baghdad and donated 50,000 nucleic acid test kits to improve Iraq's diagnostic capability.

The Chinese volunteer medical team was dispatched by the Red Cross Society of China at the request of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, and arrived in Baghdad on March 9.

Beijing Municipality Sends 30 Tons of Aid to Iran

Chinese delegation meets Iranian medical team in Tehran, March 2, 2020.

Beijing Municipality has sent 30 tons of medical and health care items to Iran in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the Islamic Republic News Agency reported on March 18.

The donation has been delivered to the capital city of Tehran by 11 trucks. Thanking China for the measure, Tehran Mayor Pirouz Hanachi called for mutual cooperation in various areas.

Iran's Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi said on March 18 that there are 17,361 people in Iran infected with COVID-19 of which 1,135 have died.

Azadi tower in Tehran is lit up with the Chinese flag and  the words Stay Strong Wuhan,
Stay Strong China, February 18, 2020.

Serbia Seeks Aid from China Due to Lack of EU Solidarity

Chinese Ambassador to Serbia, Chen Bo, informed Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on March 17 that Beijing had approved a donation and decided to send experts to help Serbia fight the coronavirus pandemic.

President Vučić said Serbia was not yet in the same crisis as European Union (EU) countries when it comes to the coronavirus but that it would soon happen. "Serbia now turns its eyes to China," he added.

"To avoid that worst-case scenario, we need your help and support. That is why I am asking that you send us anything you can. Money is not a problem, we need everything, from masks, gloves to ventilators, literally everything, and most of all we need your knowledge and people who would be willing to come here and help," Vučić said.

"All my personal hopes are focused on and directed toward China and its president," he said, emphasizing that Serbia was not asking for money.

"We are waiting for our Chinese brothers here. Without you, it turns out that Europe is having difficulty defending itself, we do not hide the fact that we cannot [defend ourselves]. Without China and our Chinese brothers, we are incapable of doing so," Vučić said.

The Chinese ambassador said that "ordinary citizens" in China had reacted very positively to Vučić's call for help, and that more than 300 million people had watched a video recording of his statement.

The first batch of Chinese aid in the struggle against the novel virus has already arrived in Serbia, and comprises COVID-19 test kits donated by the Mammoth Foundation, a humanitarian organization based in Shenzhen.

The aid operation was coordinated by the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, in collaboration with the Serbian government. The number of test kits delivered was not specified.

The requested aid from China became all the more urgent since the European Commission decided to limit exports of medical equipment outside of the EU.

Vučić further said that he had guaranteed Serbia's "strong as steel friendship" to the Chinese president.

"European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. I have sent a special letter to the only ones who can help, and that is China...," Vučić said on March 15, the day when Serbia declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus. He said at the time that governments in Western Europe had pressed Serbia to change its tender procedures to reduce imports of Chinese goods and import from Europe instead. But now the same governments do not want to help Serbia, even in exchange for money, he said.

The EU later issued a statement saying there was no ban in the EU on the export of medical equipment, masks and ventilators. Rather, the EU adopted a regime of permits for the sale of medical equipment to non-EU states which may submit a request to continue deliveries to the Balkan and other countries outside the union.

On March 17, European Commission Spokesperson Ana Pisonero said the EU was looking at ways to connect the Western Balkans with the initiatives taken by the EU in curbing the coronavirus pandemic.

"Close coordination and cooperation at the regional level and with the EU are key factors in the response to this emergency situation. In these difficult times, solidarity is needed. This is not the time for a polemic or unfounded accusations," said Pisonero.

She added that the EU was looking at how to best provide support in mitigating the social and economic consequences of the pandemic, including the possibility of redirecting EU pre-accession (IPA) funds and flexibility regarding state aid rules.

The Serbian Minister of European Integration, Jadranka Joksimović, has already sent a letter to the Commission asking the EU to enable the repurposing of unspent IPA funds, to fight the coronavirus epidemic.

"We need to understand that we are pretty alone in all of this," Serbian Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar commented.

The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats of the European Parliament also issued a statement calling on EU authorities not to ignore the western Balkan region in the fight against the coronavirus.

"[We must] include the Western Balkan countries in our common European response, and in measures to prevent and combat the effects of the epidemic," Socialists and Democrats Vice-President Kati Piri said.

In an interview with Prva TV on March 17, Minister Lončar said that Serbia had a system in place for 2,000 patients, while preparations are under way to accept 5,000 more in hospitals nationwide. According to official data, there are currently 65 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Serbia, out of a population of 6.96 million.

Chinese medical team sees patients off from temporary hospital in Wuhan.

(, IRNA, Xinhua. Photos: Xinhua, Telesur )

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U.S. Imperialists' Utter Contempt for Human Life

U.S. Imposes New Sanctions on Iran

On March 17, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced further sanctions on Iran amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The sanctions are ostensibly in response to March 12 rocket attacks in Taji, Iraq, that killed two members of the U.S. occupation forces, for which it claims Iran is responsible. According to a statement by Pompeo, the sanctions target entities and individuals mostly related to Iran's petrochemical industry that "provide revenue to the regime that it may use to fund terror and other destabilizing activities." These include five companies based in the United Arab Emirates, three companies in China, three in Hong Kong and one in South Africa.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif denounced the new sanctions as taking the U.S. policy of putting "maximum pressure" on Iran to a "new level of inhumanity." In a tweet, he condemned the Trump administration for "gleefully" taking pride in "killing Iranian citizens" on Nowruz, the Persian New Year, celebrated on March 20 this year. He further decried the U.S. policy for its "utter contempt for human life."

"Washington's increased pressure against Iran is a crime against humanity [...] all the world should help each other to overcome this disease," Reuters quoted an Iranian official as saying on March 20. The course of the pandemic shows that the U.S. sanctions not only endanger the people of Iran, but the peoples of the world, as the coronavirus does not respect borders and the pandemic can only be overcome if all countries and peoples unite, share resources, experiences and work collectively based on a spirit of mutual benefit and cooperation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed on March 20 that the U.S. sanctions were not directed at medication or humanitarian assistance going into Iran. This is a sophistic claim to absolve the U.S. imperialists of their criminality -- namely that U.S. financial sanctions have prevented Iran from buying the necessary supplies to combat the pandemic and shipping sanctions have interfered with humanitarian deliveries.

China has called on the U.S. to offer sanctions relief to Iran, with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Beijing tweeting on March 17 that the sanctions are "against humanitarianism and hampers Iran's epidemic response," as well as deliveries of aid by the UN and other organizations. In sharp contrast to the U.S. sanctions, China has sent a team of experts to assist Iran to fight COVID-19. It has also sent humanitarian aid, as have other countries.

Iran is one of the countries in the world hardest hit by COVID-19, and the hardest hit in the Middle East. As of March 20, Iran has seen at least 1,433 deaths from COVID-19, with 19,644 confirmed cases. A spokesperson from the Iranian Health Ministry said on March 17 that one person in Iran was dying "every 10 minutes" from the virus, with new infections increasing at a rate of 50 per hour.

(With files from news agencies. Photos: Code Pink)

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IMF Refuses Aid to Venezuela (Excerpts)

Venezuela receives aid from China, March 19, 2020, to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 16, 2020, the chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Kristalina Georgieva wrote a blog post on the Fund's website; it represents the kind of generosity necessary in the midst of a global pandemic. "The IMF stands ready to mobilize its $1 trillion lending capacity to help our membership," she wrote. Countries with "urgent balance-of-payments needs" could be helped by the IMF's "flexible and rapid-disbursing emergency response toolkit." Through these mechanisms, the IMF said that it could provide $50 billion to developing countries and $10 billion to low-income countries at a zero-interest rate.

The day before Georgieva made this public statement, the foreign ministry of the government of Venezuela sent a letter to the IMF asking for funds to finance the government's "detection and response systems" for its efforts against the coronavirus. In the letter, President Nicolás Maduro wrote that his government is "taking different preventive measures and following through strict and exhaustive controls to protect the Venezuelan people." These measures require funding, which is why the government is "turning to your honourable organization to request its evaluation about the possibility of authorizing Venezuela a financing line of $5 billion from the Rapid Financing Instrument emergency fund."

Georgieva's policy to provide special assistance to countries should have been sufficient for the IMF to provide the assistance that the Venezuelan government had requested. But, very quickly, the Fund declined the request from Venezuela.

It is important to underline the fact that the IMF made this denial at a time when the coronavirus had begun to spread in Venezuela. On March 15, when Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's government sent the letter to the IMF, Maduro met with senior government officials in Caracas. The Venezuelan pharmaceutical body (CIFAR) and the Venezuelan medical equipment companies said that they would be able to increase production of machines and medicines to stem the crisis; but, they said, they would need key raw materials that have to be imported. It is to pay for these imports that the Venezuelan government went to the IMF. The denial of the loan will directly punish the Venezuelan health apparatus and prevent Venezuela from properly tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

"This is the most serious situation we have ever faced," said President Maduro as he put in place new measures. The Venezuelan government imposed an indefinite national quarantine and has put in place -- building on the local self-government (communes) -- a process to distribute food and key supplies. All the institutions of the state are now involved in doing their part in helping "flatten the curve" and "break the chain" of contagion. But, because of the IMF loan denial, the country will have a harder time producing testing kits, respirators, and key medicines for those infected with the virus.


Meeting in Venezuela, March 18, 2020, to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The IMF Takes Sides

In January 2019, the U.S. government attempted a coup against the government of President Maduro. It chose as its instrument Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. named as the actual president of the country. U.S. banks hastily seized the Venezuelan state assets held by them and turned them over to Guaidó. Then, in a startling move, the IMF said that the Venezuelan government would no longer be allowed to use its $400 million in special drawing rights (SDRs), the currency of the IMF. It said that it had taken this action because of the political uncertainty in Venezuela. In other words, because of the attempted coup, which failed, the IMF said it would not "take sides" in Venezuela; by not "taking sides," the IMF refused to allow the government of Venezuela to access its own funds. Strikingly, Guaidó adviser Ricardo Hausmann, a former IMF development committee chair and head of the Inter-American Development Bank, said at that time that he expected that when the regime change occurs, the money will be available to the new government. This is the IMF directly interfering in Venezuelan politics.

Neither at that time nor now has the IMF actually denied that the government of Nicolás Maduro is the legitimate government in Venezuela. The IMF continues to acknowledge on its website that the representative of Venezuela in the IMF is Simon Alejandro Zerpa Delgado, the minister of finance in Maduro's government. One of the reasons why this is so is that Guaidó could not prove that he had the support of the majority of the member-states of the IMF. Since he could not prove his standing, the IMF -- again extraordinarily -- has denied the Maduro government its legitimate right to its own funds and to borrow against facilities provided by the Fund to its members.


The United Nations continues to recognize the Venezuelan government. That should be the official standard for the IMF to make its determination. But it is not. It is taking dictation from the U.S. government. In April 2019, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence went to the UN Security Council, where he said that the UN should accept Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela; he turned to the Venezuelan ambassador to the UN -- Samuel Moncada Acosta -- and said, "You shouldn't be here." This is a moment of great symbolism, the United States acting as if the UN is its home and that it can invite whomsoever it wants.

The IMF denial of the $5 billion request from Venezuela follows Pence's sentiment. It is a violation of the spirit of international cooperation that is at the heart of the UN Charter.

(Brasil de Fato, March 20, 2020. Photos: AVN, S. Zerpa Delgado )

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For Your Information

Update on Global Pandemic

On March 20, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus took part in a virtual press conference where he highlighted certain aspects of the pandemic at this time. He highlighted the example of China, where the outbreak of COVID-19 has been halted, pointing out that even the most dire situations can be turned around.

Dr. Tedros pointed out that the WHO has called for testing of all suspected cases, and to that end, the organization is working hard to increase the global supply of diagnostic kits, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE). In his March 19 briefing, he reported that the WHO has shipped PPE to nearly 70 countries, while 120 nations have received 1.5 million diagnostic kits. "Our aim is to build a continuous pipeline to ensure continuity of supply," he said. The WHO is finalizing export arrangements with producers in China so that more supplies can be sent to countries.

Tedros also warned younger people against complacency. "Data from many countries clearly show that people under 50 make up a significant proportion of patients requiring hospitalization," said Tedros. He stressed that solidarity between countries as well as between age groups is the key to defeating COVID-19.

Number of Cases Worldwide

As of March 20, 6:00 pm GMT, the worldwide statistics for COVID-19 pandemic as reported by Worldometer are:

Total Reported Cases: 266,208
- 164,418 active cases
- 101,790 closed cases

Deaths: 11,187

Recovered: 90,603

New cases from March 19 to 20: 21,314

The disease is now present in 160 countries.

This compares to figures from a week earlier on March 13 of 145,634 reported cases (67,669 active; 77,965 closed); 5,436 deaths; 70,931 recovered; 11,058 new cases over the previous day; in 138 countries.

The five countries with the highest number of cases on March 20 were:

China: 80,967 (compared to 80,815 on March 13); 56 cases per one million
Italy: 47,021 (compared to 17,660 on March 13); 778 cases per one million
Spain: 20,412 (compared to 5,232 on March 13); 437 cases per one million
Iran: 19,644 (compared to 11,364 on March 13); 234 cases per one million
Germany: 18,784

Compared to a week earlier, these figures show that Europe remains the epicentre of the pandemic and that the situation there has rapidly worsened in the past week. Of the top 20 countries with the highest number of reported cases, 14 of these are in Europe, four in Asia and two in North America. South Korea, which on March 13 had 7,979 reported cases for the fourth highest total, on March 20 had 8,652 cases.

Cases in Selected Countries by Region

In Europe on March 20, the five countries with the highest number of reported cases were:

Italy: 47,021 (37,860 active; 5,129 recovered; 4,032 deaths)
Spain: 20,412 (17,781 active; 1,588 recovered; 1,043 deaths)
Germany: 18,794 (18,561 active; 180 recovered; 53 deaths)
France: 10,995 (9,328 active; 1,295 recovered; 372 deaths)
Switzerland: 5,369 (5,298 active; 15 recovered; 56 deaths)

Amongst all affected countries, Italy now has the highest number of deaths, surpassing China on March 19. Its rate of infection in the past week is reported to be higher than that of China's at its peak. Overall in Europe in the past week, the rate of new infections was more than 10,000 per day.

France, Belgium, Italy and Spain have instituted "lockdown" measures to restrict people to their homes except for going out to buy food or medicine, going to work, hospitals or banks, or excursions for caregivers for the young or elderly. These include bans on gatherings. As for March 17, France has issued 4,000 fines for violating the restrictions. The EU has closed its borders to travellers from outside the EU. About 250 million people in the EU are presently under social-distancing and other restrictions due to the pandemic.

In Eurasia:

Turkey: 359 (355 active; 4 deaths)
Russia: 253 (240 active; 12 recovered; 1 death)
Armenia: 136
Kazakhstan: 52
Azerbajian: 44 (36 active; 7 recovered; 1 death)

Turkish newspaper the Daily Sabahreported on March 20 that "Turkey is almost in a state of self-quarantine with streets emptied over virus fears as the country announces both new cases and new precautionary measures." The report adds that while "No comprehensive lockdown is in place [...] escalating measures coupled with public compliance of health advisories" have left streets empty. On March 20, the Turkish presidency issued a decree, postponing all science, culture and art events until the end of April. Earlier in the week, President Recep Tayyip Erdo urged citizens to stay home for at least three weeks.

In West Asia:

Iran: 19,644 (11,466 active; 6,745 recovered; 1,433 deaths)
Israel: 705 (690 active; 15 recovered)
Qatar: 460 (450 active; 10 recovered)
Saudi Arabia: 344 (336 active; 8 recovered)
Bahrain: 291 (178 active; 112 recovered; 1 death)

The unjust U.S. sanctions against it are the "main obstacle" to the country's effective fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a March 20 phone call with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Moteg. The bans are obstructing Iran's access to medicine and medical equipment, he added. He requested the Japanese government increase its efforts to help remove the unilateral and illegal U.S. sanctions against Iran and thanked Japan for its assistance to fight the pandemic. The Japanese Foreign Minister highlighted the two nations' friendly ties, and said that his country plans to send to Iran the drug Avigan, which has been used in Japan to treat new strains of influenza and appears to be effective in coronavirus patients.

Minister Zarif has also written a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for the removal of the U.S. sanctions.

Iran's deputy health minister Alireza Raisi said on March 20 that of Iran's 31 provinces, provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, and Gilan have registered the highest number of cases of infection while 13 provinces have seen a big drop.

In South Asia:

Pakistan: 500 (484 active; 13 recovered; 3 deaths)
India: 249 (221 active; 23 recovered; 5 deaths)
Sri Lanka: 73 (70 active; 3 recovered)
Afghanistan: 24 (23 active; 1 recovered)
Bangladesh: 20 (16 active; 3 recovered; 1 death)

The newspaper Pakistan Today reported on March 20, "The government of Pakistan has [...] decided to close its border with Iran for two weeks, and the government will again review the situation after those two weeks. During this time, system of screening against COVID-19 will be made stronger. The Ministry of Education also decided to close all schools till April 14 due to the COVID-19 threat.

"The government has not yet decided to declare emergency, because the deceleration of emergency in Pakistan due to lethal threat of COVID-19 will result in creating more panic among the masses. This decision of not imposing an emergency is a good and necessary step of the government. The government has also decided to run a media campaign on the issue of COVID-19, to create awareness among the masses regarding prevention of this deadly disease. The [Special Assistant to the Prime Minister] on health also said that the government would also request the Chief Justice of Pakistan to close the civil courts and adjourn cases for at least three weeks."

Regarding the very low number of cases for India despite its population of 1.3 billion people, Ramanan Laxminarayan, Director of the Center for Disease Dynamics in Washington, DC, and a lecturer in Economics and Policy at Princeton University, in a recent interview with The Wire, said that India could be the next coronavirus hotspot. The Wire writes:

"Using the United States estimates for itself that 20-60 per cent of the population could be infected, Dr Laxminarayan said that means in the worst case scenario, 60 per cent of the Indian population could be infected -- which is some 700 or 800 million people. However, Dr Laxminarayan added that the vast majority would only be mildly affected. A very small percentage would become seriously ill and an even smaller percentage would, sadly, lose their lives.

"[...] Dr Laxminarayan said that he found it hard to believe the Union health ministry's official figure which, on their website at 12 pm on Wednesday [March 17], said that India had 130 people with the coronavirus infection in addition to the 14 who have recovered and the three who have died.

"He says if the United Kingdom can accept that they have underestimated the number infected by a factor of 12, at the very least the situation would be the same in India. That means there are over 1,500 undetected cases. In fact, given our size and population density Dr Laxminarayan estimates that India is bound to have 10,000 or more undetected coronavirus cases.

"Dr Laxminarayan also told The Wire that he disagrees with the Indian Council of Medical Research's [ICMR] official stand that India is still in stage 2 of the epidemic [local transmission] and has not entered stage 3 [community transmission]. Dr Laxminarayan said India probably entered stage 3 two or three weeks ago. He said he was saying this on the basis of the experience of the rest of the world and on the best scientific modelling projections. He also said that if you look at the steps that the government has taken -- shutting schools, colleges, theatres and cinemas -- this clearly suggests the government knows we are in stage 3 even if, for arguably good reasons, it does not want to publicly admit it.

"Dr Laxminarayan told The Wire that India needs to sharply ramp up its testing. He said we should be testing 10,000 people a day. Instead, according to the ICMR, as of 5 pm on March 17 India has only tested a total of 11,500 people.

"While Dr Laxminarayan agreed with the ICMR policy not to test asymptomatic people who have either come from coronavirus-affected countries or been in touch with coronavirus-infected people, he felt it was essential to test those who have symptoms such as coughs, cold, fever or respiratory distress even though they have no travel history or have not come in contact with an infected person. This second category must be tested otherwise we will not know what percentage of people with such symptoms are coronavirus-related as opposed to sufferers of ordinary seasonal colds, coughs and flu.

"Asked by The Wire for his assessment of the Indian government's handling of the coronavirus crisis, Dr Laxminarayan said that whilst it had acted promptly to check entry into the country and while sensible steps like shutting schools, colleges, theatres and cinemas had been taken, he was critical of the level of testing which he felt was woefully inadequate for a country with a 1.3 billion population.

"Dr Laxminarayan told The Wire that on the assumption somewhere between four and eight million people could need ICU treatment, India needs to urgently import ICU equipment, ventilators and a range of medicines. He said this has been right at the top of the advice he has given the government."

In Southeast Asia:

Malaysia: 1,030 (940 active; 87 recovered; 3 deaths)
Singapore: 385 (254 active; 131 recovered)
Indonesia: 369 (320 active; 17 recovered; 32 deaths)
Thailand: 322 (279 active; 42 recovered; 1 death)
Philippines: 230 (204 active; 8 recovered; 18 deaths)

The Jakarta Post on March 19 reported that "The World Health Organization on March 16 called on countries in the Southeast Asia region to urgently scale up aggressive measures to combat COVID-19, as the number of cases continues to rise globally. The virus, which was first detected in China, spread rapidly to 152 countries and territories, infecting nearly 175,000 people and killing 7,019.

"'The situation is evolving rapidly. We need to immediately scale up all efforts to prevent the virus from infecting more people,' said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, director of the WHO South-East Asia Regional Office (SEARO).

"'Urgent and aggressive measures are the need of the hour. We need to act now,' the WHO official said in a statement.

"Eight of the 11 countries grouped under WHO-SEARO have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and numbers are increasing quickly Khetrapal Singh said.


"Malaysia became the first country [in the region] to announce a two-week lockdown of the country, days after the Philippines moved to shutter its capital Manila and later the entire island of Luzon. Laos has sealed its borders with China and Myanmar, while people in Brunei, Singapore and Thailand have been ordered to restrict their movements."

In East Asia:

China: 80,967 (6,569 active; 71,150 recovered; 3,248 deaths)
South Korea: 8,652 (6,325 active; 2,233 recovered; 94 deaths)
Japan: 963 (715 active; 215 recovered; 33 deaths)
Taiwan: 135 (105 active; 28 recovered; 2 deaths)

On March 19, China reported that there were no new locally transmitted cases or suspected cases in Wuhan for the first time since the outbreak began, a result that was repeated on March 20. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, stated at a March 20 press conference that the results in China show that the coronavirus can be suppressed and its transmission chains broken through a massive all-sided societal effort, with coordination, solidarity, commitment and workable supply chains, as well as engagement of activated communities and brave health workers. "That is a message of hope to many other countries around the world who have very low number of cases right now," said Ryan.

In south Korea, one of the main measures taken against the pandemic has been widespread testing. The Hankyoreh reported on March 19: "As of March 17, South Korea has tested over 270,000 people for the novel coronavirus throughout the past two months. The number is noticeably higher than the 138,000 tests performed as of March 16 in Italy, which has experienced a steep rise in diagnoses. The cumulative number of patients who had tested positive as of the same day stood at 8,320 for South Korea and over 28,000 for Italy. Indeed, while other countries have been scrambling to restrict arrivals from abroad, south Korean disease prevention officials have focused more on swift testing for those with apparent symptoms and populations with a high risk of cluster infections. Kwon Gye-cheol, chairperson of the Korean Society for Laboratory Medicine (KSLM), explained, 'Once the virus has spread to a certain extent, it is not easy to stop infections simply by blocking overseas arrivals.'"

In North America:

USA: 16,517 (16,167 active; 125 recovered; 225 deaths)
Canada: 924 (901 active; 11 recovered; 12 deaths)
Mexico: 164 (159 active; 4 recovered; 1 death)

New measures announced in the region this week include agreements reached to block non-essential travel (e.g., for tourism or recreation) across the Mexico-U.S. border and the Canada-U.S. borders. Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told reporters at the White House on March 20, "We want to make sure that cargo continues, trade continues, heath care workers continue to be able to traverse that border. But tourism, some recreational activities and other things needs to stop during this crisis." As part of the new measures, the countries agreed to immediately turn back anyone attempting to “illegally” cross the borders. Irregular border crossings from the U.S. by those seeking asylum in Canada have increased due to attacks on undocumented migrants and others since the Trump administration took office.

In Central America and the Caribbean:

Panama: 137 (135 active; 1 recovered; 1 death)
Costa Rica: 89 (87 active; 2 deaths)
Dominican Republic: 72 (70 active; 2 deaths)
Cuba: 16 (15 active; 1 death)
Jamaica: 16 (13 active; 2 recovered; 1 death)

In South America:

Brazil: 654 (645 active; 2 recovered; 7 deaths)
Chile: 434 (428 active; 6 recovered)
Ecuador: 367 (359 active; 3 recovered; 5 deaths)
Peru: 234 (229 active; 4 deaths)
Colombia: 145 (144 active; 1 recovered)

In Africa:

Egypt: 256 (207 active; 42 recovered; 7 deaths)
South Africa: 202 active
Algeria: 90 (47 active; 32 recovered; 11 deaths)
Morocco: 74 (69 active; 2 recovered; 3 deaths)
Senegal: 38 (36 active; 2 recovered)

African countries have been relatively unaffected at this point in the pandemic. However, the WHO and others point out that the potential for the situation to rapidly degenerate is a real possibility. "We have seen how the virus actually accelerates after a certain [...] tipping point. So the best advice for Africa is to prepare for the worst and prepare today," said Dr. Tedros on March 17.

"We have different and significant barriers to health care in Africa, which could be a real challenge," said Dr. Ngozi Erondu, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House Centre for Global Health Security. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa do not have the isolation wards or large number of health care workers to respond to a surge of COVID-19 patients, she said.

Dr. Bernard Olayo, founder of the Kenya-based Centre for Public Health and Development, said most countries in Africa cannot afford ventilators. Even if ventilators were provided by other countries, it's not sufficient because of the lack of qualified people to use them. "It's complex, it's very very complex because the patients that end up on ventilators require round the clock care by larger teams," he said.

Many patients could do well with just oxygen, he said, but close to half of health facilities in African countries do not have reliable oxygen supplies. Oxygen concentrators can be used, but given the frequent electricity cuts in many countries, oxygen generators and pressure cylinders are needed because they can function while power is out.

The WHO regional Africa director, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said the lack of ICU facilities and ventilators is one of the biggest challenges facing the continent. "We have been able to identify importing a field hospital-type of facility that can be set up and equipped with some of the key items needed, such as ventilators," she said. Training has begun in Republic of Congo and Senegal so health care workers will be ready to operate it, and World Bank funding is being made available, she said.

Elsie Kanza, head of Africa at the World Economic Forum, said many countries are deploying lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-2016 that killed over 10,000 people. The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was created to respond to that Ebola outbreak. As of March 18, 43 African countries can test for the coronavirus, the organization said.

In Oceania:

Australia: 876 (823 active; 7 deaths)
New Zealand: 39 active
Guam: 14 active
French Polynesia: 11 active

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