- Massive protests have been going on in Iran since Friday after the government said they would hike up fuel prices by as much as 300%.
- The government responded to the protests by launching a widespread internet blackout all over the country, making information about the protests and violence difficult to obtain.
- Iranian officials have said that only 12 people have died, but international organizations and Iranian journalists said the numbers are much higher.
- The Trump administration said it supports the protests, but many have called its claims hypocritical, noting that the sanctions on Iran have played a huge role in the country’s economic downturn.
Protests Break Out
Nationwide protests have erupted in Iran over the last few days, prompting the government to shut down the internet in almost all of the country.
The demonstrations first started on Friday after the Iranian government announced that it would hike up fuel prices from between 50% to as much as 300%.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the increase would raise up to $2.55 billion that would be handed out to about 60 million of Iran’s poorest people.
But because the country only has around 80 million people total, many have argued that the government was basically making everyone pay more for gas to just give that money back to most of the population.
The move was also significant because gas is incredibly cheap in Iran, which has the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. Before the price hikes, people were only paying about 25 cents a gallon for gas.
Even though the new prices are still lower compared to global gas prices, it is a big deal for Iran where many people are struggling due to economic downturn and high inflation.
Similar to other recent protests in countries like Chile and Lebanon, a single decision by the government to raise prices on a population that was already hurting was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Like those other protests, that decision prompted much broader demonstrations against economic issues and corruption.
Following the government’s announcement, drivers abandoned vehicles on highways and protesters took to the streets, blocking roads. While protests in some areas have been largely peaceful, others have become violent.
In some places, protestors set fires and ransacked gas stations, banks, stores, and government buildings. Demonstrators also clashed violently with security forces who responded by using teargas.
Those clashes reportedly escalated Saturday, with some reports that the security forces were opening fire on protesters.
The full extent of both the protests and the violence is not currently clear because of the government’s internet blackout.
Iranian officials first imposed the sweeping internet restrictions on Saturday, and they have remained in place since then.
Internet monitoring service NetBlocks described the shutdown as “near-total.”
Oracle’s Internet Intelligence described it as the “largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.”
Government officials in Iran said Tuesday that they would gradually lift the block once they were sure the internet would not be “abused” during the protests.
A judiciary spokesman also said Tuesday said that the protests had died down, but there are some conflicting reports as to the validity of that claim, as well as other statements made by the government.
Iranian officials have said that 12 people have been killed, including both civilians and security forces, but others say those numbers are much higher.
The United Nations reported that “dozens” have died, while Amnesty International said the number was more than 100, based on credible sources.
Iranian journalists have also reported that there have been well over 100 shootings by the security forces.
But internet blackout makes it uniquely difficult to know what the correct numbers are.
The blackout is also unique compared to other recent protests— specifically similar ones in Iraq and Lebanon— where social media has been essential in organizing demonstrations and sharing what is going on with the rest of the world.
United States’ Unique Role
In addition to the internet blackout, there is another aspect that sets apart the protests in Iran from other global protests over the last few weeks and months: the role that the U.S. has played.
Many of Iran’s economic problems have stemmed from the heavy sanctions the U.S. has placed on Iran.
The U.S., under the Barack Obama administration, had previously lifted sanctions on Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal aimed at curbing Iran’s civilian nuclear program.
But in May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from that deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, including sanctions on their oil exports, which is a huge sector of their economy.
Since then, the Trump administration has continued to ramp up those sanctions, arguing that a “maximum pressure” campaign is more effective to crackdown on Iran’s government.
Many economists and human rights activists have said that the sanctions actually end up hurting Iran’s civilian populations more than they hurt the government.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the protests in a tweet on Friday where he told the people of Iran that “the United States is with you.”
Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned Pompeo’s tweet. In a statement, a ministry spokesperson said that Pompeo’s remarks were “hypocritical” because of the role the U.S. sanctions have played in the country’s economic problems.
“It seems weird to [be] sympathizing with a nation suffering from the US’ economic terrorism and the same person who has already said that the Iranian people should be starved to surrender,” the spokesperson said.
But the Trump administration seemed to double down on its position in a statement released by the White House Sunday.
“The United States supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime that is supposed to lead them,” the statement said. “We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators.”
Many people criticized the White House response, also arguing that the U.S. is partially to blame for Iran’s economic problems, and accusing the administration of painting the protests just as demonstrations against the government when that is only part of the equation.
Some pointed out that the Iranian government implemented the fuel price hike in the first place as part of a broader plan to mitigate the huge economic hit from U.S. sanctions, as well as to help the millions of Iranian civilians who have been hurt by those sanctions.
Iranian government officials for their part have continued to downplay the protests.
During a televised statement Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The counter-revolution and Iran’s enemies have always supported sabotage and breaches of security and continue to do so.”
The Ayatollah also said that he still supports the price hike, saying that it “must be implemented” — which is meaningful because he has the final say.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps warned protesters Monday that they will take “decisive” action if the unrest continues.
See what others are saying: (CNN) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)
Wuhan Lifts Lockdown Measures as Other Countries Consider Loosening Their Own
- Wuhan has ended its 76-day lockdown amid concerns that lifting restrictions could cause a second wave of outbreaks.
- At least 65,000 people have already left Wuhan, even though the government has urged people not to leave the city or even their neighborhoods.
- Meanwhile, China has reported new coronavirus cases, most of which are from travelers. Notably, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan all experienced second waves of the virus after an influx of travelers.
- The U.S. and numerous countries are also considering easing restrictions despite continued reports of new cases and deaths increasing.
Wuhan Lifts Restrictions
Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus first started, has officially ended its lockdown after 76 days.
With the reopening, travel restrictions have also been lifted. Residents will now be allowed to leave the city as long as they show authorities a government-sanctioned phone app that indicates whether or not they are a health risk based on their home address, travels, medical history, and other data collected by the government.
According to local reports, within just hours of the ban being lifted, around 65,000 people had left the city by train and plane alone. Thousands more were allowed to leave by car or bus once the roads were open.
However, Chinese health officials said Tuesday that Wuhan residents are still being pushed not to leave their neighborhoods, the city, or the province unless necessary, furthering apprehension about the decision to reopen.
Concerns Over Spread & Travel
While the situation seems to have calmed down, some experts say there is still a risk in ending the lockdown and letting people leave Wuhan.
Although only three new cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Wuhan in the last three weeks, there are still concerning numbers in other parts of the country.
On Tuesday, China reported that new confirmed cases had doubled, rising to 62 from 32 the day before, the highest since March 25. Notably, new imported infections made up 59 of those cases.
Chinese health officials also said Wednesday that asymptomatic cases quadrupled, going up to 137 from just 30 a day earlier. Again, travelers accounted for a high number of those, making up 102 of the cases.
The fact that so many of the new cases are coming from travelers is quite significant because it is something that has happened before.
Last month, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan had all flattened their curves. Then travelers from the US and Europe began bringing the virus back, forcing all four to implement much stricter social distancing and immigration controls.
Other Countries Loosening Measures
Despite these concerns, numerous countries all over the world have said that they will begin easing containment measures.
On Monday, Denmark and Austria both announced that they will slowly start opening up parts of the countries starting next week. The Czech Republic also lifted some restrictions Tuesday and said it will start allowing some travel next week.
Spain’s government announced Wednesday that the country will start returning to “normal life” starting April 26. While officials did not give specifics about how restrictions would be eased, the move would be especially concerning for a country like Spain.
Spain has been one of the hardest-hit countries, with the second-highest number of confirmed cases after the U.S. The country’s reported fatalities slowed last week, but the number of deaths rose again recently, with 757 reported Wednesday and 743 Tuesday.
But Spain is not the only country with alarming numbers that has been looking to open things up again.
Germany and France have also said they are preparing options to ease restrictions in spite of the fact that forecasts show the outbreak is growing rapidly in both countries, which rank fourth and fifth respectively for the highest number of confirmed cases.
Similar ideas have also been floated in the U.S., which on Wednesday reported the largest single-day coronavirus death toll of any country with more than 1,800 confirmed deaths.
But on Wednesday morning, Vice President Mike Pence said that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is considering changing guidelines to make it easier for essential workers who have been exposed to someone infected to return to work.
“Under the proposed guidance, people who are exposed to someone infected would be allowed back on the job if they are asymptomatic, test their temperature twice a day and wear a face mask, said a person familiar with the proposal under consideration,” NBC News reported.
To Plan or Not to Plan
Many experts say that it is far too early to be opening things up.
While speaking during a news conference this morning, Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director for Europe, warned that despite seeing “positive signs,” it is too soon to change the regulations put in place.
“Now is not the time to relax measures,” he said. “It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive toward suppression with the whole support of society.”
That point was also echoed by Bruce Aylward, another top WHO official, who emphasized the need to ensure that the public does not take the situation lightly.
“We have got to ensure that the public understands we’re moving to a new phase,” he said “It’s not lifting lockdowns and going back to normal. It’s a new normal.”
While some experts believe that serious discussion about plans to lift restrictions could undermine the importance of containment measures in the public eye, others believe it is important to plan for the future.
Speaking to Fox News on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, said that the administration has been working on plans to eventually reopen the country.
“If, in fact, we are successful, it makes sense to at least plan what a reentry into normality would look like,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to do it right now. But it means we need to be prepared to ease into that. And there’s a lot of activity going on.”
See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)
India Lifts Ban on Hydroxychloroquine to the U.S. as Confusion Mounts Around Trump’s Investment in a Major HCQ Company
- India will now partially lift a hydroxychloroquine ban after it said Saturday that it would enact that ban to keep domestic stores from depleting.
- The ban reportedly cut off nearly half of the United States’ supply of hydroxychloroquine, and Monday night, President Donald Trump threatened to retaliate.
- Also regarding hydroxychloroquine, #Sanofi trended on Twitter Tuesday after the New York Times reported that Trump had a “small” investment in the company, which makes the drug.
- Despite many online believing this to be a major cash grab by the president, those holdings are likely less than $1,000.
India Agrees to Export Limited HCQ
Hours after President Donald Trump threatened retaliation, India lifted its recent ban on all hydroxychloroquine exports as demand for the drug surges.
Late last month, India implemented a partial ban on hydroxychloroquine exports; however, it said it would still honor existing contracts and certain shipments on humanitarian grounds on a case-by-case basis. On Saturday, India took that measure one step further by implementing a total ban on hydroxychloroquine exports.
The move was reportedly an attempt to protect domestic stocks, especially as hydroxychloroquine gains attention all over the world.
“Like any responsible government, our first obligation is to ensure that there are adequate stocks of medicines for the requirement of our own people,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said.
India is one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical producers and is a major manufacturer of hydroxychloroquine.
As of Tuesday, it has recorded just over 5,100 cases of COVID-19, according to John Hopkins University. That’s compared to India’s massive population of 1.3 billion. While the number of infected people is likely already much higher than what’s being reported, India is also bracing for a potential surge.
The Trump Administration has heavily promoted hydroxychloroquine despite reservations from doctors wanting to make sure it’s safe and effective first. Still, the U.S. has been preparing by stockpiling the drug. Part of that has included buying it from India; however, that ban reportedly cut off half of the U.S. supply of hydroxychloroquine.
On Saturday, the same day as that total ban, Trump said he had spoken with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and had appealed for the release of shipments the US has already ordered. Trump also noted that India was giving the request “serious consideration.”
By Monday night, Trump ramped up that pressure, saying, “I spoke to him Sunday morning, called him, and I said we’d appreciate your allowing our supply to come out. If he doesn’t allow it to come out, that would be OK, but of course, there may be retaliation. Why wouldn’t there be?”
Hours later, India announced that it had enough hydroxychloroquine pills for a domestic supply and that it would partially lift the drug’s export ban.
“Given the enormity of the COVID19 pandemic, India has always maintained that the international community must display strong solidarity and cooperation,” the spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said.
“In view of the humanitarian aspects of the pandemic, it has been decided that India would licence paracetamol and HCQ in appropriate quantities to all our neighbouring countries who are dependent on our capabilities.”
“We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic,” he added, though he didn’t refer to Trump or the U.S. specifically. “We would therefore discourage any speculation in this regard or any attempts to politicise the matter.”
Trump’s “Small” Stake in Sanofi
Hydroxychloroquine also made headlines Tuesday after a report from The New York Times led to confusion about Trump’s investment in a company that makes the drug.
“If hydroxychloroquine becomes an accepted treatment, several pharmaceutical companies stand to profit, including shareholders and senior executives with connections to the president,” the article about Trump’s “aggressive advocacy” for the drug mentioned several paragraphs down.
“Mr. Trump himself has a small personal financial interest in Sanofi, the French drugmaker that makes Plaquenil, the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine.”
“As of last year, Mr. Trump reported that his three family trusts each had investments in a Dodge & Cox mutual fund, whose largest holding was in Sanofi,” the article read several more paragraphs lower.
#Sanofi then began trending on Twitter, with many people believing that Trump stood to gain serious cash from his investments in Sanofi.
“1. Trump is relentlessly pushing hydroxychloroquine for #COVID19,” one person tweeted. “2. Sanofi manufactures the brand-name version of hydroxychloroquine. 3. Just guess what comes next…”
Others were angry at the New York Times because these investments weren’t the focus of the article. Because of that, they accused the New York Times of burying the lede.
However, it seems The New York Times might have put that mention so low for a reason. According to Business Insider headline on the situation, “Trump has a distant financial link to a pharma giant that makes the drug he’s been pushing to fight COVID-19 — but it’s probably worth less than $1,000.”
Business Insider then goes on to explain that each of Trump’s three family funds are valued between $1,000 and $15,000. Those funds are managed by JP Morgan, with Trump not providing any input.
According to data from December, those funds have Sanofi holdings at 2.9%. Using that information, Business Insider then calculates that at most, Trump has an investment of $1,305, and at minimum, his investment is $87.
Even though The New York Times calls it a “small” investment, such a number is probably a lot less than most people would imagine. Without seeing any extra context, however, those lines from The New York Times likely led many to believe that Trump has been touting hydroxychloroquine as a business move.
See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (The Guardian) (Business Insider)
Countries Consider Loosening Coronavirus Lockdowns as Japan Moves to Declare State of Emergency
- Austria is set to be the first country in Europe to loosen lockdown restrictions, with smaller businesses allowed to open their doors on April 14.
- They are not the only European country with hopeful news regarding the virus. Both Spain and Italy have seen cases grow at a slower rate.
- In China some restrictions have already been lifted, leading to massive crowds in national parks and tourist spots. Some fear this will cause a second outbreak.
- Meanwhile, Japan, which is just now seeing cases surge, is set to announce a state of emergency starting on Tuesday.
Austria to Lift Lockdown
As countries like Austria are poised to loosen lockdown measures, others are just starting to ramp up their efforts to combat coronavirus outbreaks.
Austria is set to be the first country in Europe to ease its lockdown measures. On Monday Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that smaller businesses will be allowed to open up on April 14, and that others can resume on May 1. This, however, is contingent on the fact that citizens continue to practice social distancing efforts. Kurz told Austrians to cancel their Easter plans and stay inside, or else the country could “gamble away what we have achieved in the past few weeks.”
Cases Slow in Spain and Italy
Austria is not the only country feeling an ounce of hope during this ongoing pandemic. In the past 24 hours, Spain has reported a slower increase in both deaths and fatalities. In one day, there were 674 new deaths in the country, which is the lowest increase in fatalities in nine days, according to Fox News. Over the course of the day, confirmed cases went up just five percent, the lowest increase since the outbreak began.
Italy, which is home to one of the worst outbreaks in the world, has also seen cases slow down a bit. While the country might still be miles away from a return to normalcy, options as to how to get people back out are now being discussed. According to the New York Times, politicians are looking at the potential for people who have recovered from the virus to head back to work first.
“Having the right antibodies to the virus in one’s blood — a potential marker of immunity — may soon determine who gets to work and who does not, who is locked down and who is free,” the Times explained. Many researchers are hesitant about this idea, but politicians seem eager to explore it as a potential strategy for when the time comes to resume normal life.
China Sees Crowds After Lockdown Lift
Some places have already begun their lifts on lockdowns, including several areas of China. As cases have slowed in the pandemic’s first home, some places have opened back up and seen massive crowds. National parks and tourist attractions have been packed with people eager to get out after being trapped inside.
According to CNN, on Saturday, one park was so populated that authorities announced that it reached its 20,000 person capacity before 8 a.m.
Major cities also saw crowded streets, despite health experts still warning to avoid crowds. In fact, many experts fear that these crowds could lead to a second wave of the virus in China. One county has already reinstated its lockdown after cases popped up again.
Not everyone is ready to return to normalcy, even if there are signs of positive change. On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced its first daily dip in deaths. The state went from 630 new deaths on Saturday to 594 on Sunday. Still, Cuomo does not believe this is a guaranteed sign of progress.
“We’re not really a hundred percent sure what the significance is, as we’re feeling our way through this,” Cuomo said before calling the dip a potential “blip.”
In fact, the whole of the United States has probably not seen the worst of the outbreak yet. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams spoke to Fox News on Sunday and said that this week is “going to be the hardest and saddest week of most Americans’ lives.”
“This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country,” he added. Currently, the United States has over 357,000 cases and 10,000 deaths.
Japan’s State of Emergency
While many countries are well into their mass responses to the coronavirus, the Prime Minister of Japan has just announced his intention to declare a state of emergency. Compared to many countries, Japan has had a smaller outbreak, with roughly 4,000 cases and 80 deaths. Cases are on the rise though, with capital city Tokyo reporting that infections doubled in just one week.
The state of emergency is set to go into effect on Tuesday and with be in effect at least until May 6. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked for citizens to cooperate “to prevent an explosive surge.”