US, ASEAN Postpone March Summit Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

The United States said Friday that Washington was postponing a special summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as countries around the globe continued to fight the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). 

“As the international community works together to defeat the novel coronavirus, the United States, in consultation with ASEAN partners, has made the difficult decision to postpone the ASEAN leaders meeting previously scheduled for mid-March,” a senior administration official said. 

The U.S. and 10 nations from the Southeast Asian bloc have been eyeing a special summit to boost ties at a time when analysts say China continues to expand its influence in Southeast Asia while driving a wedge between Washington and some of its traditional allies in the region.

“The United States values our relationships with the nations of this critical region and looks forward to future meetings,” the official said. 

The summit was scheduled for March 14 in Las Vegas. Bilateral meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and ASEAN leaders were also being planned. 

VOA’s Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report from the White House. 

KCNA: Kim Guides Military Drills, Warns ‘Serious Consequences’ if Virus Breaks Out

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw military drills on Friday, state media KCNA said on Saturday, a rare public outing amid efforts to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus in the isolated country.

North Korea has not confirmed any cases of the virus, but state media said a month-long quarantine period had been imposed for people showing symptoms and “high-intensity” measures were taken including reinforcing checks in border regions and at airports and sea ports.

On Feb. 16, Kim made his first public appearance in 22 days to visit a mausoleum marking the anniversary of the birth of his father and late leader Kim Jong Il.

The military drill was to “judge the mobility and the fire power strike ability” on the frontline and eastern units and ended to a “great satisfaction” of Kim, KCNA said.

“Soldiers, who have firmly armed themselves with a-match-for-a-hundred idea of the Party and trained under the simulated conditions of actual battles, reduced a target islet to a sea of flames,” KCNA said.

In a separate dispatch, KCNA said Kim has also convened a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful politburo where a stricter enforcement of “top-class anti-epidemic steps” was discussed to prevent the spread of the virus.

“In case the infectious disease spreading beyond control finds its way into our country, it will entail serious consequences,” Kim was quoted as telling the meeting. “No special cases must be allowed within the state anti-epidemic system.”

He instructed the officials to “seal off all the channels and space through which the infectious disease may find its way, and strengthen check-up, test and quarantine,” KCNA added.

Search for Water Solutions Engages Pakistan-born Students

Roughly 20 million people in Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi, face water shortages regularly. That is a key issue addressed by a Houston team at the Future City National Finals in Washington. Students on the team attend the Al-Hadi School of Accelerative Learning in the Houston area and most have relatives from Karachi. For VOA, Sahar Majid has more on their winning future city model. Kathleen Struck narrates.

Pompeo Defends Trump Iran Strategy

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the Trump administration’s strategy in Iran in a tense Capitol Hill hearing Friday. The panel marked the first time Pompeo has answered questions from lawmakers in an open setting since the death of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in early January. VOA’s Congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson has more on Congressional Democrats’ concerns about transparency in US foreign policy.

‘Assassination Attempt’ on Chechen Blogger Alarms Watchdogs

Media freedom watchdogs say they are alarmed about the reported assault on a well-known Chechen blogger in an unidentified European country where he lives in hiding.

An assailant broke into Tumso Abdurakhmanov’s apartment on February 26 while he was asleep and beat him with a hammer, according to the Sweden-based human rights group Vayfond.

Abdurakhmanov, who eventually overpowered the attacker, was said to be hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

Both Vayfond and the blogger’s brother called the assault an assassination attempt — the latest attack in Europe on critics of the leadership in Russia’s North Caucasus region.

Harlem Desir, representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, tweeted Thursday that he was “alarmed by the reported attempt to assassinate” Abdurakhmanov. He noted that the attack came after last month’s suspected murder of another Chechen blogger in France.

Alarmed by the reported attempt to assassinate #Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov, in #Poland, which comes after last month’s murder of another Chechen blogger in Lille, #France.

— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) February 27, 2020

Abdurakhmanov, 32, has lived in self-imposed exile since fleeing Chechnya in 2015 amid fears for his safety after becoming known for his criticism of the Kremlin-backed authorities in his native region. He has twice filed for asylum in Poland and has been turned down once already, despite strong support from human rights activists such as Amnesty International, which has warned he is “at a very real risk of torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment” if returned to Russia.

Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said the attack against Abdurakhmanov “is alarming and must be thoroughly investigated.”

“Bringing the perpetrators of this attack to justice is crucial for ensuring the safety of Chechen dissidents living in Europe,” she said. 

The location of the attack has not been disclosed, but Abdurakhmanov posted a video on WhatsApp in which, after overpowering the purported attacker, he interrogates him.

The alleged assailant says he is from Moscow and that he was sent by someone named “Abdurakhman from Grozny,” the Chechen capital, in order “to frighten” the blogger.

“They have my mother,” he adds.

Other accusations

Meanwhile, sources in Chechnya told RFE/RL’s North Caucasus service that on Wednesday local police in the villages of Stanitsa Naurskaya and Stanitsa Shelkovskaya detained at least nine young men who had “liked” online videos posted by Abdurakhmanov.

Relatives of the allegedly detained men refused to comment. Naursky district police officials denied that they detained anyone on that day, while a spokeswoman for the Shelkovsky district police hung up the phone after an RFE/RL correspondent introduced himself.

FILE – Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks at a news conference in Chechnya’s provincial capital Grozny, Russia, April 12, 2014.

Rights groups say Kremlin-backed Ramzan Kadyrov, who has ruled the volatile region since 2007, uses repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces in the region. They claim Kadyrov is ultimately responsible for the violence and intimidation of political opponents by Chechen authorities, including kidnappings, forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings.

Chechen authorities have threatened, intimidated and arrested journalists for their work, according to the CPJ.

In late January, the body of Imran Aliyev, another Chechen blogger known for his criticism of Kadyrov, was found in a hotel room in the northern French city of Lille with stab wounds, according to French media.

The CPJ said it had yet to determine whether Aliyev’s death was tied to his reporting.

Chinese Navy Fires Laser at US Aircraft

The United States Navy says that a Chinese Navy destroyer targeted a U.S. patrol aircraft with a laser last week while it was flying over the Philippine Sea, about 600 kilometers west of Guam.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement that a Chinese ship trained the laser on the American P-8A Poseidon aircraft in an “unsafe” and “unprofessional manner,” while the P-8 was operation “in international airspace in accordance with international rules and regulations.”

The U.S. Navy said the Chinese action was in violation of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a multilateral agreement reached in 2014, and also inconsistent with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U.S. and China defense departments on safety of air and maritime encounters, the statement said.

The laser was captured by a sensor onboard the P-8A and was not visible to the naked eye.

“Weapons-grade lasers could potentially cause serious harm to aircrew and mariners, as well as ship and aircraft systems,” the Navy said.

The P-8A Poseidon is deployed to Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan and conducts routine operations, maritime patrol, and reconnaissance in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations.

Coronavirus Emergency Funding Expected to Leap Political Hurdles

U.S. lawmakers are working to quickly pass a bipartisan bill providing billions of dollars in emergency funding to address the worldwide spread of a coronavirus. 

Increasing the pressure on lawmakers to address the threat is the first U.S. coronavirus case with no known cause, meaning the female victim in Northern California did not travel outside the U.S. or come in contact with anyone who is infected.

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More cases likely

Nevertheless, health officials briefing lawmakers on the U.S. response said the public should not panic, even though more cases are expected.

“The risk of the American public is low,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We have an aggressive containment strategy that really has worked up to this time; 15 cases in the United States. Until the case that we just had in Sacramento, we hadn’t had a new case in two weeks. We do believe we’re going to continue to see new cases.”

The rapid movement of the virus is forcing many lawmakers to acknowledge that no one knows how much money will be enough, whether it’s the president’s $2.5 billion plan or Senate Democrats’ $8.5 billion proposal.

“We should just be ready to make sure our scientists and the folks that are on the front line, particularly the folks that are in public health systems and hospitals on the frontline have the resources and support,” said Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat from California and a physician.

Funding soon

Despite political disagreements, lawmakers are expecting to pass that extra funding by mid-March.

McConnell, speaking on the Senate floor, said he has faith that bipartisan discussions on the Senate Appropriations Committee would agree on “the right sum … at this time to ensure our nation’s needs are fully funded” within the next two weeks.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has tried to calm fears about the virus by visiting a Chinatown in her California congressional district, said lawmakers were getting close to a deal.

“We must stand ready to work in a bipartisan fashion in Congress, and with the administration to achieve the necessary goal,” she said. “Lives are at stake. This is not a time for name calling or playing politics.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

Somalia ‘Now in Good Standing’ With World Bank

The World Bank on Thursday said it is normalizing relations with the Federal Government of Somalia after 30 years.

The bank noted the Somali government’s “strong record of fiscal, political, social and economic reforms in recent years” in making the move.

“Normalizing relations means that the country is now in good standing with the World Bank,” World Bank Country Manager Hugh Riddell told VOA Somali. “It means that going forward Somalia will be able to access grants, grants financing for poverty reduction.”

He said the new grants will help Somalia invest in basic needs of the Somali people.

After 30 years, the @WorldBank Group & Somalia took an important step today toward reestablishing financial relations + increasing WBG support for the Somali people.

I thank @SomaliPM & @DrBeileh for their good work + important reforms.

Read more here: https://t.co/Jn0q8IFX86pic.twitter.com/4ZHvYmPwVt

— David Malpass (@DavidMalpassWBG) February 27, 2020

News of the World Bank’s move came just a day after the International Monetary Fund announced it had secured “sufficient financing pledges” to provide comprehensive debt relief to Somalia. More than 100 IMF member countries have pledged to provide US$334 million in financing, IMF said.

.@KGeorgieva: More than 100 countries—including low-income countries—have agreed to contribute the money IMF needs to provide debt relief to #Somalia. https://t.co/nSSsj8UJwFpic.twitter.com/NPIOptt2s2

— IMF (@IMFNews) February 26, 2020

The African Development Bank and African Development Fund approved a framework for $122.55 million to clear Somalia’s arrears on the same day as the IMF announcement.

Somalia owes more than $5 billion to external creditors and hopes to achieve debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative.

Riddell said the nod from the World Bank does not mean that Somalia will borrow more money. This was in response to concern from Somali observers that the improvement in financial standing by the Somali government could translate into borrowing and taking on more debt.

“This does not mean that Somalia will have access to lending, there will be no loans from the World Bank; the financing that will come will be purely grants,” Riddell said.

“Somalis need not worry that this will lead to borrowing by the Somali government, and the World Bank money will be purely 100 percent grants,” he added.

Riddell says the bank has been working closely with the Somali Ministry of Finance and the central bank since 2012. He praised the reforms made.

“Some of the basic reforms that have taken place over the past seven years have been increasing revenue generation, not only Mogadishu port, Mogadishu airport but also increasingly the private sector,” he said. “That means that the government is able to generate its revenues from businesses, and those businesses are happy to pay increasing amounts of tax to the government because of the transparency that is now in the budget system and the oversight of the expenditures that is now carried out by the Ministry of Finance.”

He also said that Somalia’s Auditor General has been carrying out annual audits of the budget and is reporting to the parliament. He said laws have been passed that enabled the central bank of Somalia to carry out supervisory functions in the financial sector of remittances, as well supervise the new Somali banks that have been formed.

The Somali prime minister has welcomed the move by the World Bank and the African Development Bank, and described it as a “landmark milestone.”

Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire tweeted: “#WB & #AfDB announce to reengage #Somalia, clear arrears & ultimately relieve the country of the debt burden under the HIPC Initiative, paving the way 4 tremendous foreign direct investment! Our commitment to reform begins to pay dividends. Deeply indebted!”

Landmark milestone as #WB & #AfDB announce to reengage #Somalia, clear arrears & ultimately relieve the country of the debt burden under the HIPC Initiative, paving the way 4 tremendous foreign direct investment! Our commitment to reform begins to pay dividends. Deeply indebted!

— SomaliPM (@SomaliPM) February 27, 2020

Coronavirus Emergency Funding to Leap Political Hurdles

U.S .lawmakers are working to quickly pass a bipartisan deal providing billions of dollars in emergency funding to address the worldwide spread of coronavirus. Congressional Democrats have criticized the Trump administration for a poorly coordinated response, calling the $2.5 billion White House proposal insufficient. But as VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports, health officials assured lawmakers U.S. efforts are working.

What the Numbers Tell us About the Dangers of COVID-19

The novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has infected more than 81,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 3,000. Those numbers have been a critical gauge of the infection’s spread, but they do not reflect the entire problem. Scientists consider several key questions when assessing the danger posed by the outbreak.

How many infected?

Almost all of the confirmed cases so far have been in China, with about 3,000 scattered around the rest of the world. In China, Beijing changed the testing criteria multiple times, leading to fluctuating numbers that have made it difficult to determine the outbreak’s growth. Outside China, some countries have reported faulty test kits or long delays in getting results. One large study in China found that more than 80% of the cases are mild, and some infected people show no symptoms. This means the number of infected could be much higher than the official tally.

How dangerous?

In the study published by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 14% of patients were considered “severe,” meaning people experienced shortness of breath, low oxygen or other lung problems. Fewer than 5% were “critical,” meaning patients experienced respiratory failure, multiple organ dysfunction or septic shock. Public health specialists said a significant source of risk during epidemics comes from overwhelmed health care systems that become unable to care for people who need other medical treatment.

How deadly?

The fatality rate in China has fluctuated, but now is about 2.3%. But scientists have pointed out that if the actual number of infected patients is much higher than the confirmed cases indicate, the percentage of people who die from infection is actually lower.

What’s the risk?

If the numbers hold up, the majority of people who become infected will experience mild cases, similar to a common cold or seasonal flu. China’s hardest hit provinces, which struggled to keep up with surging infections, had higher death rates than other areas of the country. Older people and people with preexisting health conditions are most at risk. Initial numbers indicate that children have contracted the coronavirus at lower rates than adults.