COVID-19 International Developments: Daily Scan, March 28, 2020
Prerna Gandhi, Associate Fellow, VIF
Food security concerns stoked as exporters curb sales, importers buy more

Global food security concerns are mounting as some governments contemplate restricting the flow of staple foods amid panic buying and disrupted supply chains with around a fifth of the world’s population under lockdown due to corona virus. However, combined global production of rice and wheat - the most widely-traded food crops - is projected to be a record 1.26 billion tonnes this year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture data. But those projections assume normal crop flows. Prices for rice are already rising due to expectations of a further squeeze on exports. “It is a logistics issue. Vietnam has stopped exports, India is in a lockdown and Thailand could declare similar measures,” said a senior Singapore-based trader. In Egypt, the world’s largest wheat buyer, there have been delays in offloading Black Sea grain supplies from ships, with paperwork slowed by office closures due to the virus.

Farmers warn over food supply with harvest workers shut out

Travel restrictions have cut seasonal migration to a trickle just as farmers gear up for the harvest, at a time when stockpiling and a sharp economic downturn have piled pressure on to many countries’ food producers. According to the FNSEA, the French union of farmers and DBV, the German farmers’ association, lakhs of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe, a majority from Romania and others from Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary would be needed to harvest in the coming 2-3 months. “Every first world economy is used to workers coming from other economies to pick their fruit and veg,” said Ali Capper, who chairs the horticulture board for the UK’s National Farmers’ Union. The US has limited seasonal farmworker visas from Mexico and its farmers face similar problems, while China, where the outbreak began, is also grappling with labour shortages after restricting internal travel.

The internet is under huge strain because of the corona virus. Experts say it can cope — for now

Globally, operators have said their networks are able to cope with the uptick in demand. Still, streaming services have taken steps to reduce their bandwidth utilization and cut picture quality in an effort to prevent network congestion. Nevertheless, worries persist over the amount of strain placed on the web by data-intensive applications such as streaming content and video conferencing.Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for internal market and services, has urged streaming platforms to cut their video quality in order to prevent an overload. But should traffic exceed anticipated levels, operators may have to prioritise certain types of service, like access to important healthcare or education resources.The big uncertainty going forward is how long the pandemic and the nationwide shutdowns it has caused — will last. Telecommunications companies have underlined they still need to physically maintain the copper and fiber cables and other equipment needed to deliver broadband.

Deferral of Basel III standards comes as lenders lobby regulators for leeway on capital and accounting standards

New international rules governing banks’ capital requirements and disclosures are to be deferred by a year, to help lenders focus on responding to the financial impact of coronavirus. On March 27, the Basel Committee announced a series of measures designed to “provide additional operational capacity for banks and supervisors to respond to. . . the impact of the corona virus disease (Covid-19) on the global banking system”.These include pushing back the implementation date of the new Basel III standards, governing bank capital and reporting, by one year to January 1 2023. They will also grant lenders the same extension for adopting a new market-risk framework, and making clearer disclosures of their key liquidity and funding ratios.

UN Security Council Paralyzed as Contagion Rages

The UN Security Council—which held its last meeting on UN premises on March 12—has been riven by a range of procedural and political disputes. A major player in the Ebola outbreak, the council has turned into the site of a US-China showdown over the corona virus. In an effort to fill the current political vacuum, UN Secretary-General António Guterres on March 23 issued a call for a sweeping global cease-fire to allow war-wracked countries and insurgent forces to turn their attention to battling the virus. Some council diplomats have weighed in on the issue. But the council has yet to lend its concerted voice to the appeal. The council has also so far been unable to convince Russia to renew the mandates for UN operations in Somalia and Sudan, or to grant an extension to a panel of experts monitoring sanctions against North Korea.

UNSC won’t discuss Covid-19; China blocks it with help from Russia, South Africa

China, Russia and South Africa nixed Estonian efforts to initiate a discussion in the UN Security Council over the spread of Covid-19 with loss of lives threatening the peace and security of the world. China, from where the virus originated, is the President of the UNSC till March 31, after which Dominican Republic takes over. According to diplomatic sources, while Russia and South Africa said that there was no direct link between the spread of virus and threat to peace and security of the world, China shot down the proposal saying that there was no consensus within the UNSC, a mandatory requirement to take up any proposal.

EU says Britain had chance to join ventilator procurement scheme

Britain was given a chance to participate in a European Union scheme to buy ventilators to fight the corona virus, the EU said on March 27, after London said it had not joined because it missed the invitation in an e-mail mix-up. The EU launched a joint procurement procedure on March 17 to buy ventilators on behalf of 25 members states, in a bid to cut prices and reduce competition among EU nations seeking the machines which help corona virus patients breathe and are in short supply. Britain, which is entitled to participate in such schemes under an 11-month transition deal since leaving the EU in January, did not join it.That attracted criticism at home from opponents who accused the government of prioritizing “Brexit over breathing” – so determined to act independently of the bloc that it would risk public health in the corona virus crisis.

Donald Trump says tariff talks with China paused as the two countries cooperate on halting pandemic

US President Donald Trump said on March 27 that “nobody cares about trade” amid the Covid-19 pandemic, brushing off questions about whether he reached any tariff agreements with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in a recent phone conversation. “President Xi never even brought it up last night. It wasn’t even discussed,” said Trump.Trump and Xi promised to cooperate to contain the Covid-19 pandemic when they spoke on phone following a G20 video conference summit. It was the first time the leaders had spoken with each other since February.

US slaps new sanctions on Iran after G20

The US Treasury announced new sanctions after the family of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing more than a decade ago, claimed they believed he had died while in custody in Iran, citing information from US officials. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said on March 26 that Levinson had left Iran "years ago" for an unspecified destination.The new sanctions were announced two days after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for sanctions against countries such as Iran to be rolled back to allow their medical systems to fight the virus and limit its spread. In a post on his Twitter page on March 22, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the "US is not listening" to "the growing global campaign" to lift "illegal" sanctions on the Iranians and thereby "impeding global fight against Covid-19". Earlier this month, Tehran asked the International Monetary Fund for $5bn in emergency funding to fight the outbreak.

Yemen warring parties back UN truce call, as US starts aid reduction

A Saudi-led military coalition said late on March 25 that it backed the Yemeni government’s acceptance of the UN truce appeal. The Iran-aligned Houthi movement welcomed that stance but said it wants to see implementation on the ground.Yemen had witnessed a lull in military action after Saudi Arabia and the Houthis launched back-channel talks late last year. But there has been a recent spike in violence that threatens fragile peace deals in vital port cities. “We have a global corona virus pandemic threatening to overwhelm an already broken health care system,” said Tamuna Sabadze, Country Director at the International Rescue Committee, adding that Yemen was already battling a large cholera outbreak. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) meanwhile said it had started to reduce aid to areas controlled by the Houthis, on concerns the group hinders the delivery of assistance, a spokesperson told Reuters.

Thousands of Workers Stuck On Remote Arctic Construction Sites

Russian companies argue that work must go on, as they isolate several large industrial sites in the Arctic. The result is that many thousands of workers are stranded on site, unable to get back to their homes in the central parts of the country.Until recently a large number of Chinese workers were employed in the project. However, most of them were sent back to China early in the year, Governor Andrey Chibis told SeverPost. The Belokamenka project includes the building of a plant for construction of LNG production platforms. Time limits are short and the plant is getting the first platform ready for operations in the Gulf of Ob by 2022. Up to 9,000 workers are reported to be isolated on site by project developer Novatek in a measure aimed at limiting the spread of the corona virus among workers.

China struggling with quality of test kits sold abroad

The Spanish Society of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology (SEIMC) on its website announced that nose swab kits produced by Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology are accurate just 30 percent of the time. In response, the Chinese embassy on March 26 claimed on Twitter that Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology is not on its list of "approved suppliers." The Spanish health ministry later issued a statement in which it said that the test kits had been acquired through a supplier in Spain, which had imported them from China, reported La Prensa Latina. Earlier in the week on March 23, a Czech news site revealed that 80 percent of the COVID-19 rapid test kits "donated" from China are faulty, forcing healthcare workers to continue relying on conventional laboratory tests.

Drug gangs in Brazil’s favelas enforce coronavirus lockdown

With President Jair Bolsonaro dismissing the pandemic as “sniffles” and criticising regional lockdown measures, the country’s drug gangs and paramilitary groups have stepped in to enforce social distancing to combat the spread of corona virus.The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Brazil rose to 2,915 and 77 deaths on March 26— a greater than tenfold increase from the previous week. Experts fear an explosion in corona virus infections that could contribute to social unrest in communities long-neglected by the state.

New technology platform launches to connect healthcare providers with PPE suppliers

Minneapolis-based Think tank United States of Care worked with US Digital Response Team to launch Project N95, a platform that connects healthcare providers who need access to PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) with manufacturers who can meet the demand. Within weeks, millions of units of PPE will be available to healthcare providers, according to Project N95. The COVID-19 pandemic is creating dangerously low supplies of PPE, causing healthcare providers to rely on makeshift alternatives that offer minimal—if any—protection from infection. Manufacturers, recognizing the need and seeking avenues to help providers, use the clearing house to share information about their products, order thresholds, and how quickly they can ship supplies to providers.

CEPI says $2bn is needed for COVID-19 vaccine development

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has said that $2bn is needed to support the development of a successful vaccine against COVID-19. Its ambition is to have at least three vaccines in development to submit to regulatory authorities for general and emergency use.To raise the substantial sum, CEPI has outlined ‘five funding phases’ to help it achieve its mission.That includes an initial $100m to help fund phase 1 clinical trial of eight vaccine candidates, and then a further $375m by the end of March 2020 to prepare four-six for phase 2/3 trials. This will be followed by $400m by the end of June 2020 to take at least two candidates into phase 2/3 trials and prepare for trials to be carried out in a number of locations. At this stage, the investment will also be used to scale up the manufacturing process for up to six candidates. Lastly, CEPI says that $500m-$750m in 2021 will be needed to support the global manufacturing capacity, with tech transfer, to geographically distributed locations of up to three candidates.To ensure the availability of funds and reflecting the many uncertainties that still surround COVID-19, the World Bank has created a financial vehicle where funds can be returned to donors if not used for the response or if the epidemiological picture changes and vaccine development is deemed unwarranted, CEPI has highlighted.

UK Makes World’s Largest Donation to Find a Corona virus Vaccine

The international race to find a vaccine against coronavirus has been boosted as UK pledged of £210 million ($243 million) – the largest single contribution from any one country. The German government’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research has already provided $171 million of immediate funding to support CEPI’s development of a COVID-19 vaccine. "My call to every G20 country and to governments around the world is to step up and help us defeat this virus," says Boris Johnson, adding that if all G20 governments pledged $100 million the $2 billion would be instantly raised. However, since CEPI's appeal for funds, few other countries have pledged donations. Instead, one of its largest donors has not been a country but a billionaire: Bill Gates gave $100 million to CEPI in 2017 and has since granted another $125 million towards efforts to developing both vaccines and therapeutics to fight COVID-19. In its efforts to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, CEPI is backing eight different non-profit and profit groups, including the Jenner Institute at Oxford University and CureVac, the German pharmaceutical company.

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