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Wuhan Lifts Lockdown Measures as Other Countries Consider Loosening Their Own

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  • 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)

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New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

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  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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