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6.4-Magnitude Earthquake Kills at Least 18 in Albania

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  • Albania was hit by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake early Tuesday, one of the strongest it has seen in two decades.
  • By the early afternoon, officials said at least 18 people were found dead, while over 600 others were treated for injuries. 
  • Nearby counties, as well as the U.S. and the EU, have offered to provide support amid ongoing rescue efforts.

Earthquake Causes Widespread Damage 

At least 18 people died and more than 600 others were injured after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck in the Balkan nation of Albania early Tuesday. 

The quake, one of the strongest to hit Albania in two decades, struck just before 4:00 a.m local time and was recorded about 19 miles west of the capital of Tirana. The early morning shake was also followed by three aftershocks, with magnitudes between 5.1 and 5.4. 

Videos posted on social media show the widespread destruction the tremor left behind, with collapsed buildings, crushed cars, and deep cracks in streets and sidewalks. Rescue teams are on the ground actively working to help anyone who may still be trapped under the rubble. Meanwhile, others who have been recovered are being transported to local hospitals for medical attention. 

Health Minister Ogerta Manastirliu said that of hundreds who received medical attention for their injuries, nine are in life-threatening conditions.

As far as the death toll, Albania’s Defense Ministry initially reported that 13 people had died. Seven of the deceased were said to have been pulled from the rubble in the city of Durrës, a coastal port city. Five others died in a collapsed apartment in the northern village of Thumanë. Another person died in the town of Kurbin after jumping from a building in an attempt to escape. 

But by the afternoon, the death toll rose to 18 after four more bodies were found in Durrës inside collapsed buildings.

Rescue Efforts Continue 

Emergency teams are working quickly to prevent that number from rising, but the damage from the quake is immense. 

While visiting Thumane, the town closest to the epicenter, President Ilir Meta described the situation as “dramatic” adding, “We hope to overcome it with the least loss. We must do every attempt to save the people stuck under the ruins!”

After later visiting Durrës, he added that many residents can no longer take refuge in their homes.“The consequences of the earthquake in Durrës are dramatic and require extraordinary organization, not only by the state, but nationwide!”

Nearby countries like Italy, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, and others have offered their help. The European Union and the United States also offered immediate support. 

“Our country was hit by a wave of earthquakes like never before in the darkness of the early hours of today!” President Meta said in an official statement to residents. “It is important to work with dedication and professionalism to save every human life under the rubble of buildings and to help the injured. It is important to identify residents who cannot return to their homes and who need housing.”

Tuesday’s disastrous shake comes just two months after the country was hit by another significant earthquake. The previous quake, a 5.6 magnitude tremor, struck on September 21, causing dozens of injuries and damaging hundreds of homes. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Al Jazeera) (AP News

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U.S. Charges Venezuelan Leader With Drug Trafficking, Narco-Terrorism

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  • The Department of Justice announced criminal charges against Venezuelan leader Maduro and about a dozen others.
  • The charges include narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and others.
  • The move marks the second time a foreign head of state has been indicted on drug charges in the U.S. and shows a significant escalation in the U.S. pressure campaign on the Maduro regime.

Maduro Charged

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and 14 others, including senior regime officials, with narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and other charges in a sweeping indictment unveiled Thursday.

The indictment, which was announced by Attorney General William Barr, accuses Maduro of conspiring with the Columbian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces, known by their Spanish acronym as FARC.

FARC is a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has long secured its funding by smuggling cocaine.

“For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities,” Barr said in a press conference Thursday morning 

“The scope and magnitude of the drug trafficking alleged was made possible only because Maduro and others corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes described in our charges,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York, who joined Barr via teleconference to make the announcement.

“As alleged, Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation,” Berman continued. “Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon.” 

The charges also pertain to Maduro’s alleged leadership of a drug-smuggling cartel called the Cártel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns, according to a press release from the DOJ.

According to the release, Maduro has served as one of the leaders of the cartel since 1999. In that time, Maduro “negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine” and directed the cartel to “provide military-grade weapons to the FARC.”

He also facilitated “large-scale drug trafficking” with Honduras and other countries, and “solicited assistance from FARC leadership in training an unsanctioned militia group” that essentially functioned as an “armed forces unit” for the cartel. 

U.S. Ramps Up Efforts

Very notably, the release also said that the State Department was offering rewards of up to $15 million for information that could lead to the capture and arrest of Maduro.

While it remains unlikely that he will be arrested and actually see the inside of a courtroom in the U.S., the charges are still quite significant for several different reasons.

First of all, it is incredibly rare for the U.S. to indict a foreign leader on drug charges. According to the Miami Herald, it is only the second time the U.S. government has filed criminal charges against a foreign head of state.

Second, it marks a very serious escalation on the part of President Donald Trump and his administration in their pressure campaign on Maduro and his regime.

The U.S. and about 60 other countries have refused to recognize Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela after he was re-elected as president last year in an election widely considered illegitimate.

That prompted both a large protest movement and opposition leader Juan Guaidó to declare himself the true leader of the country. But Maduro has held onto power while the people of Venezuela continue to suffer.

The U.S. has slowly ramped up the efforts it’s taken against Venezuela, first imposing sanctions on individuals, then expanding those to a full-blown embargo on oil— Venezuela’s biggest resource.

The U.S. has also broadly moved to lock Venezuela out of the American financial system altogether. 

Venezuela & the Coronavirus

While the U.S. has taken these steps gradually over the course of the last year, the new charges represent a big jump and raised some questions about timing.

Venezuela’s protests movement, which once seemed to be making headlines everyday, has died down in recent months. Efforts to organize and demonstrate against the Maduro regime have also been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The country has reported 106 confirmed cases, and like other countries, the pandemic has also significantly weakened Venezuela.

But Venezuela is particularly vulnerable. With its economy in shambles and its hospital system collapsed, the country was already facing severe medical supply shortages, dilapidated equipment, and unsanitary conditions in hospitals even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, the pandemic threatens an already dangerous situation.

Many reporters questioned Barr’s timing with the new charges amid the pandemic. Barr said the case had been in the works for a long time and the announcement was merely a coincidence. 

“We moved on these cases when we were ready to do it,” he said, adding that he felt the move was “good timing” for the people of Venezuela.

“They need an effective government that cares about the people,” he said. “We think that the best way to support the Venezuelan people during this period is to do all we can to rid the country of this corrupt cabal.”

Maduro, for his part, rejected the charges before they were even announced. 

“There’s a conspiracy from the United States and Colombia and they’ve given the order of filling Venezuela with violence” he wrote on Twitter. “As head of state I’m obliged to defend peace and stability for all the motherland, under any circumstances.”

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (The Miami Herald)

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Spain Surpasses China in Coronavirus Deaths

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  • Spain officially surpassed China in its number of coronavirus deaths on Wednesday, with over 3,400 fatalities reported. 
  • The country has seen tragic fallouts from the pandemic, including elderly people being found abandoned and even dead in nursing home beds.
  • In Madrid, an ice rink is being converted into a makeshift morgue and an exhibition center is being turned into a hospital. 
  • Some Spaniards are not obeying stay-at-home orders, which is frustrating officials. Similar frustrations from leaders are being seen in Italy, which has reported the highest number of coronavirus deaths.

Spain Suffers from Coronavirus

Spain’s coronavirus death toll officially surpassed China’s on Wednesday after the country registered an overnight increase of 738 new fatalities. The total number of coronavirus deaths in Spain has reached 3,434, while China’s is at 3,281, according to The New York Times.

The European nation is facing bleak realities as over 47,600 cases have been reported and the disease continues to wreak havoc. When soldiers were sent to disinfect nursing homes, they found elderly residents left unattended and some even dead in their beds, Spain’s defense minister María Margarita Robles Fernández told the Spanish TV channel Telecinco on Monday.

According to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, caregivers have walked out of these homes when the virus has been detected, and some have expressed their frustrations about working in high-risk conditions without adequate protective wear. 

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the conditions of these facilities, according to El Pais.

And as of this week, an ice rink in Madrid is being converted into a makeshift morgue as funeral homes are overwhelmed by those left dead from the virus.  

Also in Madrid, an exhibition center — typically used for trade fairs — is being turned into a hospital. It is expected to have over 5,000 beds, including 500 in an intensive care unit when completed, according to reports

Medical facilities in the worst-affected areas have already been short on beds in ICUs, and some health care staffers have said that elderly people who have lost their lives could have been saved if there wasn’t a lack of ICU space. 

But Spanish officials have denied this claim.

“Some units are under a lot of stress, but we haven’t reached that point in Spain,” Ricard Ferrer, chairman of the Spanish Society of Intensive and Critical Care Medicine, told The Wall Street Journal

Spain’s Response Against the Outbreak 

Spain is 11 days into a 15-day nationwide lockdown that will likely be extended further. 

The government has faced criticism for not acting quickly enough, as Spain has seen a dramatic increase in cases over the past two weeks, but Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has argued that he acted in accordance with advice from scientific experts. 

The government is also resisting pushes to make the lockdown more strict by banning all nonessential activities, which would close down many factories and offices in an already-struggling economy.

“Our measures are among the most drastic taken in the European Union,” Health Minister Salvador Illa told reporters on Monday, adding that the challenge is to make sure citizens obey the already-existing restrictions. “We know it’s tough but it is the only path to the defeat of the virus.”

One significant characteristic of Spain that is worsening the problem of the virus is the country’s socially-oriented culture, which citizens have seemed slow to give up. Since the lockdown began, authorities have found about 60,000 people disobeying the restrictions on going out, and have arrested about 500, according to The Wall Street Journal

But just as in other nations hit hard by this pandemic, glimmers of hope and joy have been seen despite the devastation citizens are facing. One notable example of this is a video from Mallorca that went viral. The clip features police singing and dancing in the street for families stuck inside. 

Italy’s Struggles Rage On

Now Italy remains the only country that has seen more coronavirus deaths than Spain, with a staggering 7,503 fatalities as of Wednesday, according to John Hopkins University. Total cases in Italy are at 74,386.  

Italian leaders are facing their own struggles to maintain control over their country’s lockdown. Antonia Decaro, mayor of Bari, was shown on camera personally yelling at people in public to go indoors. Other leaders have released videos of themselves scolding their citizens for not complying with the stay-at-home ban. 

It’s clear by their stern messages that the officials are not taking this lightly.

“This is like a war bulletin because we are in a real war,” Massimiliano Presciutti, Mayor of Gualdo Tadino, said in a Facebook video on Friday. “And now I turn to you…You need to stay home! Don’t you understand that people are dying? Four hundred people are dying a day!”

“Hundreds of students will be graduating… I hear some want to host a party,” Vincenzo De Luca,  president of Campania, said. “We’ll send armed police over, and we’ll send them with flamethrowers.”

Nine EU nations, including Spain and Italy, have called on the EU to raise funds through a “common debt instrument” to handle both the health and economical fallouts from the pandemic.  

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (Reuters) (BBC)

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Trump Points Blame at China as New Reports Explain Coronavirus Spread

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  • The New York Times created a visual timeline depicting how rapid travel and slow global responses aided the coronavirus’ ability to quickly become a pandemic. 
  • This comes as a Reuters report revealed that a potentially key China-based CDC employee was removed from their post in July. That job could have been crucial in relaying information about the virus to the United States.
  • The elimination of that position also highlights divisions between the Trump administration and China as the two blame each other for the virus’ spread.

Coronavirus Timeline

As an unfinished puzzle mocks you while you stare out the window, dreading your next grocery store run, one question is probably sitting on your mind: how did we get here?

Well, on Sunday, reports from the New York Times and Reuters began to answer that question. The reports created key timelines and noted new details that explain how the world came to face the coronavirus pandemic. The Times created a visual timeline that starts at the virus’s beginnings in Wuhan, China, before breaking down its international reach.

According to the Times, a handful of cases from a seafood market quickly turned to dozens by the end of December. At the time, doctors only knew that patients had a type of viral pneumonia. But even in December, the number of cases could have been exponentially higher. 

“The true size of the outbreak was much larger even then — an invisible network of nearly 1,000 cases, or perhaps several times more,” the Times wrote. 

China first alerted the World Health Organization about public risk on December 31, calling the disease preventable and controllable. This alert came on the eve of a crucial turning point for the virus: traveling for Lunar New Year. On January 1, there was extensive travel from Wuhan and throughout China. Throughout the whole month of January, about 7 million people left Wuhan. 

This infected thousands of travelers and started local outbreaks all over China. By February 4, areas that were centers for travel were seeing outbreaks of their own. The Times said that 85% of virus-carrying travelers may have gone undetected.

International Spread

All of this led to the end of January, when Wuhan was put on lockdown, travel bans were getting set in place, and international spread picked up. Still, even though countries other than China were now taking measures of their own, the damage had already been done.

“It was too late,” the Times report said. “Outbreaks were already growing in over 30 cities across 26 countries, most seeded by travelers from Wuhan.” 

By March, the virus had made its way to Italy, South Korea, Iran, and more. China was no longer the driver of its spread and was actually beginning to see a decline in cases as it increased isolation, tracing, and testing.

The United States, however, has had slim testing in comparison. By the time the country was beginning to respond, major cities already had outbreaks. Like the outbreaks before it, the ones in these areas were “once again outpacing efforts to stop it.”

China-Based CDC Position Removed

On top of this rapid and uncontained spread, a Reuters report indicates that key communication between the United States and China may have been lost. The U.S. got rid of a CDC position in July, just months before the outbreak. According to Reuters, that job belonged to Dr. Linda Quick. Quick was an epidemiologist that trained Chinese field epidemiologists who were sent to the “epicenter of outbreaks to help track, investigate and contain diseases.”

According to several sources in their report, Quick’s position could have been essential in relaying news about the outbreak from on the ground in China at an earlier time, then developing a quicker response. The CDC, however, said her elimination did not stop the spread information and “had absolutely nothing to do with CDC not learning of cases in China earlier.”

Still, cases of the disease began popping up at least in December in Wuhan. Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human services said he first learned of the virus in early January. A former CDC director maintained to Reuters that if the role existed today “it is possible that we would know more today about how this coronavirus is spreading and what works best to stop it.”

Trump Vs. China

Reports over the past several days also indicated that there could be another factor in potentially lagging information between the United States and China: President Donald Trump.

Dr. Robert Fontaine, who served in that now-removed adviser position years ago, told Reuters that tensions between the Trump Administration and Chinese leadership have grown over the past year, damaging their ability to work together. 

“The message from the administration was, ‘Don’t work with China, they’re our rival,’” he told the outlet. 

On par with that messaging, many experts have claimed that the United States’ relationship with China has weakened since the outbreak. Trump and other officials have repeatedly called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus,” a phrase that has been condemned for being stigmatizing and racist. Despite criticism, the administration has defended the phrase, which works hand in hand with Trump’s efforts to blame China for the severity of the outbreak. 

Trump has pointed fingers at China for not stopping the virus’ spread and travel sooner, among other lagging responses. China, however, has thrown the blame right back, criticizing U.S. leadership for not taking it seriously, even though there were global warnings.

This divide is approaching at an incredibly consequential time. China and the U.S. are the two largest economies in the world, both facing varying levels of uncertainty because of this pandemic. Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper, a fellow in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations told The Hill that as they toss blame back and forth, things may only get worse. 

“This is one of these catastrophic, earth shattering moments that have the potential to pull two otherwise rivals together to provide necessary leadership at a time of crisis and it appears to be pushing them even further apart,” she said.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Reuters) (The Hill)

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