The pandemic hovers over China’s once-a-year political congress.
Coronavirus cases in China have slowed to a fraction of what they were in January, but the pandemic was weighing heavily on the country’s politics and economy as top officials began a tightly choreographed legislative pageant on Friday.
In one sense, the National People’s Congress is a chance for China’s leaders, who won broad public support for curbing the spread of the outbreak, to push back against growing international criticism over their early missteps in Wuhan. President Xi Jinping has described his government’s containment efforts as a “people’s war” against the virus.
A key policy goal of the conference — pressing an offensive to subdue the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory — also suggests that Mr. Xi’s government is determined to show it will not be politically cowed by the crisis. China announced on Thursday that it planned to impose stringent new security legislation on Hong Kong in the coming months.
For one, his government faces a new outbreak in Jilin, a northeastern province of 27 million people that sits near China’s borders with Russia and North Korea. Jilin has been put under a Wuhan-style lockdown as it has reported an outbreak that is still small — about 130 cases and two deaths — but has the potential to become a “big explosion,” experts say. The Congress agenda includes proposals to improve the country’s hospitals and disease surveillance system.
Then there is the economy, which shrank in the first three months of the year compared with a year earlier — the first decline in the modern era. On Friday, Chinese officials declined to set an economic growth target for this year and outlined plans to ramp up government spending.
“At present, the epidemic has not yet come to an end, while the tasks we face in promoting development are immense,” Premier Li Keqiang told lawmakers as the National People’s Congress opened in Beijing on Friday. “We must redouble our efforts to minimize the losses resulting from the virus.”
The virus also presented challenges for organizers of the Congress, which is a logistical nightmare even in normal times.
Delegates have been made to take nucleic acid tests for the virus before being allowed to travel to Beijing. Masks will be required, windows will be opened to improve ventilation, and most journalists must follow proceedings and join news conferences by video link.
Concerns about coronavirus infections have added new dimensions to an already polarizing global debate over migration.
On Thursday in Guatemala, for example, President Alejandro Giammattei voiced frustration over U.S. deportations of people infected with the virus, saying it was causing “serious problems” for his nation’s health system.
“Guatemala is an ally of the United States, but the United States is not Guatemala’s ally,” Mr. Giammattei said. “They don’t treat us like an ally.”
There have been 119 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among people deported from the United States to Guatemala, The Associated Press reported. Some deportees have became a point of contention in Guatemala, where several community councils last month threatened to burn a government building where migrants were quarantined over concerns that they posed a health risk.
In Hungary, the government on Thursday shut down transit zones along the Serbian border where thousands of migrants have been stuck for a year or more. It freed about 300 refugees from the zones, Reuters reported, while also effectively barring future ones from applying for asylum.
Reuters quoted President Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, as saying that the zones were emptied after an E.U. court ruled that the practice of keeping migrants inside them was unlawful.
And in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government agreed to scrap a policy that requires staff from overseas in the country’s vaunted National Health Service to pay a surcharge — nearly $500 per year for migrants who aren’t from the European Union — to help fund the system in which they work.
Mr. Johnson had previously resisted calls to exempt the workers, saying on Wednesday that his government “must look at the realities” of funding the N.H.S.
But after public pressure mounted, a top official said on Thursday that the workers would be exempted “as soon as possible.” Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, called it “a victory for common decency.”
A group of 77 Nobel laureates has asked for an investigation into the cancellation of a federal grant to EcoHealth Alliance, a group that researches bat coronaviruses in China.
The pre-eminent scientists characterized the explanation for the decision by the National Institutes of Health as “preposterous.” The agency said the investigation into the sources of pandemics did not fit “with program goals and agency priorities.”
The Nobel recipients said the grant was canceled “just a few days after President Trump responded to a question from a reporter who erroneously claimed that the grant awarded millions of dollars to investigators in Wuhan.” President Trump said the grant would be ended immediately.
The grant had been given to EcoHealth Alliance, an organization with headquarters in New York that studies the potential for spillover of animal viruses to humans around the globe. The group collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been at the center of conspiracy theories about how the novel coronavirus originated. Virologists and intelligence agencies agree that the virus evolved in nature and spread from animals to humans.
Days after the news conference in April, the National Institutes of Health emailed Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth Alliance. They questioned his work with the Wuhan Institute, and after an exchange of emails, he was informed that the renewal of his grant for more than $3 million was canceled.
Harold E. Varmus, a former director of the N.I.H., said that the government always sets broad priorities for research that some scientists may disagree with, including restrictions on use of embryonic stem cells, but that this research was squarely in line with federal priorities. He called the cancellation “an outrageous abuse of political power to control the way science works.”
If any place was prepared for quarantine, it was Milton Keynes. Two years before the pandemic, a start-up called Starship Technologies deployed a fleet of rolling delivery robots in the small city about 50 miles northwest of London.
The squat six-wheeled robots shuttled groceries and dinner orders to homes and offices. As the coronavirus spread, Starship shifted the fleet even further into grocery deliveries. Locals like Emma Maslin could buy from the corner store with no human contact.
“There’s no social interaction with a robot,” Ms. Maslin said.
The sudden usefulness of the robots to people staying in their homes is a tantalizing hint of what the machines could one day accomplish — at least under ideal conditions. Milton Keynes, with a population of 270,000 and a vast network of bicycle paths, is perfectly suited to rolling robots. Demand has been so high in recent weeks, some residents have spent days trying to schedule a delivery.
When the Starship robots first arrived in Milton Keynes, one of the fastest-growing cities in Britain, Liss Page thought they were cute but pointless. “The first time I met one, it was stuck on the curb outside my house,” she said.
Then, in early April, she opened a letter from the National Health Service advising her not to leave the house because her asthma and other conditions made her particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. In the weeks that followed, the robots provided a much-needed connection to the outside world.
Smaller deliveries suit Ms. Page because she lives alone. But like the grocery vans that deliver larger orders across the city, the Starship robots are ultimately limited by what is on the shelves.
“You pad out the order with things you don’t really need to make the delivery charge worthwhile,” Ms. Page said. “With the last delivery, all I got were the things I didn’t really need.”
The call to prayer rang on a recent afternoon from Jamia Mosque, a landmark in downtown Nairobi with green and silver domes and multiple minarets. There should be worshipers converging there during this sacred month of Ramadan, but the mosque’s doors remained shut, its prayer halls empty since closing in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With no congregation to join, I sat in the car, rolled down the windows and listened to the muezzin’s voice, a mellifluous sound that instantly made me cry.
This is a Ramadan like no other. The pandemic, which in Kenya has infected at least 1,109 people and killed at least 50 others, has given us the gift of loneliness. Isolated under a partial lockdown in Nairobi and a nationwide curfew that stretches from dusk to dawn, millions of Muslims in Kenya and beyond have exchanged sprawling banquets for dining alone and observing the evening taraweeh prayers from home.
I chafe at the imposed restrictions sometimes because, with 21 siblings and 16 nephews and nieces, the iftar meal to break the daily fast has always for me been a bustling family affair. We would start with dates, then gorge on spicy samosas and chicken biryani, pass around my mother’s legendary camel meat, and share cakes and sweet chai.
Many times, particularly when we were young, we would even watch an episode or two of the historical epics or weepy melodramas that are a mainstay of Arab television during Ramadan. But this year, we are getting more than enough drama from real life.
And so we stay physically apart but find unity in the rituals of fasting and feasting. Things might be falling apart, but I have come to find comfort and continuity in the small things: the paneer samosas sent by a friend’s mom, the afternoon runs at a nearby, almost-empty forest, the messages from loved ones checking in from all over the world — and the sound of the azan, the call to prayer, broadcast from the tops of minarets.
President Trump, who has defiantly refused to wear a mask in public despite the recommendations of federal health officials, toured a Ford plant in Michigan on Thursday with his face uncovered. That was against the factory’s guidelines and the direct urging of the state’s attorney general.
During his visit, Mr. Trump continued to press for the further easing of social-distancing restrictions. He blamed Democrats for keeping the economy closed and suggested voters would punish them in the presidential election and view it as “a November question.”
Here’s what else happened on Thursday in the United States:
Mr. Trump called for flags at the White House, on public grounds across the country and on naval vessels to be flown at half-staff in honor of the victims of the coronavirus. It was a rare acknowledgment of the lives lost from an administration that typically likes to downplay the death toll and take credit for lives it claims it saved.
The Department of Health and Human Services said on Thursday that it would provide up to $1.2 billion to the drug company AstraZeneca to develop a potential coronavirus vaccine from a laboratory at Oxford.
The federal government reported that another 2.4 million American workers filed for jobless benefits last week, bringing the total to a staggering 38.6 million in nine weeks.
Reporting contributed by Evan Easterling, Isabella Kwai, Abdi Latif Dahir, Javier C. Hernández, Keith Bradsher, Chris Buckley, Mike Ives, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, James Gorman, Cade Metz and Erin Griffith.