Roshan the camel brings books to homeschooling children in rural Pakistan

(Reuters) – Plodding his way through the desert in remote southwest Pakistan, Roshan the camel carries priceless cargo: books for children who can no longer go to school because of coronavirus lockdowns.

The school children, who live in remote villages where the streets are too narrow for vehicles, put on their best clothes and rush out to meet Roshan. They crowd around the animal shouting “the camel is here!”

Pakistan’s schools first closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, and have only opened sporadically since then, with around 50 million school-age children and university students told to continue their education from home. It’s been especially difficult in places like Balochistan, where in many villages internet access is almost non-existent.

Raheema Jalal, a high school principal who founded the Camel Library project with her sister, a federal minister, says she started the library last August because she wanted children around her remote hometown to continue learning despite schools being closed.

The project is a collaboration with the Female Education Trust and Alif Laila Book Bus Society, two NGOs that have been running children’s library projects in the country for 36 years.

Roshan carries the books to four different villages in the district of Kech, visiting each village three times a week and staying for about two hours each time. Children borrow books and return them the next time Roshan visits.

“I like picture books, because when I look at the pictures and the photographs, I can understand the story better,” nine-year-old Ambareen Imran told Reuters.

Jalal hopes to continue and expand the project to cover more villages, but needs funding: around $118 a month is needed now each month for Roshan.

Murad Ali, Roshan’s owner, says he was taken aback when he was first contacted about the project, but thought camels were the sensible mode of transport. He enjoys the trips and seeing the happy children and still earns as much as he used to when he transported firewood.

Balochistan makes up nearly half of Pakistan by area, but the sparsely populated province is also the country’s most impoverished.

(Reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Umar Farooq; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Promising virus vaccine results reported as Trump takes anti-malaria drug

By Maria Caspani and Rajesh Kumar Singh

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The phased reopening of U.S. business and social life gained traction on Monday with more Americans emerging from coronavirus lockdowns and financial markets boosted by promising early results from the first U.S. vaccine trial in humans.

News of a possible vaccine breakthrough was somewhat overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement hours later that he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 preventive treatment, contrary to medical warnings about such use of the anti-malaria drug. The disclosure came during Trump’s White House meeting with restaurant executives.

“All I can tell you is so far I seem to be OK,” the president told reporters, saying he has taken a single dose of the drug each day for the past week and a half.

Just 10 days ago the White House confirmed that Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary had tested positive for the coronavirus, 24 hours after Trump’s military valet was diagnosed.

Trump initially promoted hydroxychloroquine in April as a potential COVID-19 treatment based on a positive report about its use against the virus. But subsequent studies have found it to be ineffective, and the Food and Drug Administration has warned of the potential for serious side effects associated with hydroxychloroquine and an older, related drug, chloroquine.

VACCINE HOPE

Earlier in the day came word that a COVID-19 vaccine under development by Massachusetts-based biotech firm Moderna Inc had produced protective antibodies in a small group of healthy volunteers during a safety trial launched in March.

The findings, offering a glimmer of hope that the experimental vaccine may ultimately prove effective, sent Moderna’s shares soaring 20% on Monday and helped lift the overall stock market about 3% to a 10-week high.

Until a vaccine or cure can be found, lockdowns on commerce and social gatherings remain the chief weapon for fighting the pandemic, even while ravaging the U.S. economy.

Public health experts caution that easing stay-at-home orders and mandatory business closures is still risky while diagnostic testing remains scant in many places, leaving in doubt how much virus lurks undetected.

Although nearly all 50 states have begun reopening, only 13 had met federal guidelines for safely lifting restrictions as of Sunday, according to a Reuters analysis, raising concerns that infections and deaths could surge anew.

While some consumers have voiced hesitancy about returning to shopping malls and restaurants just yet, others were clearly ready to do so.

“We need to get the economy going again. People are either out of money or will be very soon,” said Martin Bermudez, 48, as he and a companion enjoyed ham-and-cheese omelets at a cafe in Miami.

They were among the first diners back in the eatery for sit-down table service after more than two months of takeout only.

The pandemic has afflicted the United States more than any other country, with more than 1.5 million known infections and nearly 90,000 deaths.

A revision to an influential coronavirus mortality model periodically updated by University of Washington researchers predicted on Monday that 143,357 Americans will die from COVID-19 by early August, about 3,600 fewer than last projected.

The slightly more optimistic forecast reflects greater-than-expected adherence to social distancing and face covering by the public, Dr. Christopher Murray, head of the university’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told CNN.

New York state, epicenter of the U.S. pandemic with 27,400 COVID-19 deaths to date, registered further evidence of improvement as its three-day rolling average of hospitalizations and tally of newly reported fatalities both declined.

FROM SPORTS TO ASSEMBLY LINES

In a sign of growing confidence in curbing the contagion, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was looking forward to professional sports teams to begin competing again, though without fans in attendance.

California Governor Gavin Newsom likewise said his state has been in talks with officials of all major sports leagues about a possible fan-free resumption of play. He added that a possible June 1 opening day would depend on development of new safety standards and the prevailing infection rates in California.

In the San Francisco Bay area, health directors in five counties said manufacturing, retail with curbside pickup and warehouse distribution could reopen, catching up with a similar loosening of restrictions elsewhere across the state 10 days earlier.

In the Midwest, the U.S. auto industry slowly returned to life from a two-month lockdown as the Detroit Three carmakers and their suppliers began restarting assembly lines in a sector that employs nearly 1 million people.

Hundreds of workers at Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s (FCA) truck plant in Warren, Michigan, began lining up before dawn for the early shift. Signs overhead read: “Let’s restart.”

The auto industry is widely watched as a test case for whether workers across a range of U.S. industries can safely return to factory floors.

“I’m a little nervous,” said Larry Smith, 53, who works on wheel alignment away from the assembly line. “They made all the precautions (and) they’ve done everything they can to prepare …. I’m trusting in God.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and and Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, Zachary Fagenson in Miami and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Writing by Grant McCool and Steve Gorman; Editing by Frank McGurty, Howard Goller, Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)

Seven weeks into coronavirus lockdowns, Fed has a new, darker message

By Heather Timmons

(Reuters) – One Thursday morning seven weeks ago, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell made a rare appearance on NBC’s “Today Show” to offer a reassuring message to Americans dealing with economic fallout from measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

There is “nothing fundamentally wrong with our economy,” Powell told viewers while pointing out the U.S. central bank’s outsized ability to take on lending risk and provide a financial “bridge” over the temporary economic weakness the country was experiencing.

Speaking after the Fed cut interest rates to near zero and rolled out a plan to backstop credit for small- and mid-sized companies, Powell emphasized the first order of business was to get the virus under control.

“The sooner we get through this period and get the virus under control, the sooner the recovery can come,” said Powell, echoing remarks made the day before by Anthony Fauci, a top U.S. health official helping to coordinate the federal government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

At the time, Powell said he expected economic activity would resume in the second half of the year, and maybe even enjoy a “good rebound.”

But on Wednesday, he offered a much more sober outlook.

In an interview webcast by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Powell warned  of an “extended period” of weak economic growth, tied to uncertainty about how well the virus could be controlled in the United States. “There is a sense, growing sense I think, that the recovery may come more slowly than we would like,” he said.

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was similarly somber when he told lawmakers earlier this week that the country was by no means in “total control” of the outbreak.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control and, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” Fauci said.

The pandemic has killed more than 83,000 people in the United States so far , and many epidemiological models now point to a death toll that will surpass 100,000 in a matter of weeks.

Overall new cases of the virus continue to climb as well, as states end lockdowns and reopen local economies without the widespread, uniform testing and contact tracing policies that helped stamp out initial outbreaks in South Korea and Germany.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Powell’s remarks on Wednesday mirrored warnings this week from a clutch of regional Fed presidents who outlined the country’s uncertain future.

U.S. central bank officials, and especially the Fed chief, historically choose their words carefully, to avoid alarming or exciting investors or causing swings in financial markets, making their universally dour outlook more remarkable.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said the situation could lead to a new Great Depression, with millions of so-far temporary job losses becoming permanent, and businesses failing “on a grand scale.”

“We have to get better at this and get more risk-based with our health policy,” Bullard said.

The U.S. economy can return to growth in the second half of the year, Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester said on Tuesday, with more testing and contact tracing. If that happens, she said, “as some of the stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, the economy will begin to grow again in the second half of this year and unemployment will begin to move down.”

However, a more pessimistic scenario, in which a surge in infections requires businesses to shut down again or the crisis leads to more bankruptcies or instability in the banking sector, is “almost as likely,” she said.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider, Ann Saphir, Jonnelle Marte, and Heather Timmons; Writing by Heather Timmons; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)

Ohio, Louisiana become latest U.S. states to declare coronavirus lockdowns

By Jonnelle Marte and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As U.S. cases of coronavirus spiked on Sunday, Ohio and Louisiana became the latest states to announce broad lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus with nearly one in three Americans under orders to stay at home.

The two states join New York, California, Illinois, Connecticut and New Jersey, home to 100 million Americans combined, as cases nationwide top 33,000 with at least 390 dead, according to a Reuters tally.

“Every piece of evidence that I can lay my hands on indicates that we’re at an absolutely crucial time in this war and what we do now will make all the difference in the world,” said Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. “What we do now will slow this invader. It will slow this invader so our health care system … will have time to treat casualties.”

Ohio has 351 cases and three deaths while Louisiana has 837 cases and 20 deaths, several in a senior care facility.

The mayor of New York City, the epicenter of the nation’s coronavirus epidemic, on Sunday described the outbreak as the biggest domestic crisis since the Great Depression and called for the U.S. military to mobilize to help keep the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed.

“If we don’t get more ventilators in the next 10 days people will die who don’t have to die,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, as the nation’s most populous city saw COVID-19 cases top 9,600 and deaths climbed to 63.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the federal government to take over acquisition of medical supplies so states do not have to compete with each other for desperately needed resources. He also repeated a request for the Army Corps of Engineers to build temporary hospitals.

Help is not coming quickly enough, Cuomo said.

“Time matters, minutes count, and this is literally a matter of life and death,” he said. “At the same time, there is not going to be chaos, there is not going to be anarchy. Life is going to go on. Different. But life is going to go on.”

The number of cases of the highly contagious respiratory illness in the United States and Spain are exceeded only by China and Italy. Italy reported record numbers of daily coronavirus deaths last week.

“This is going to be the greatest crisis domestically since the Great Depression,” de Blasio told CNN, referring to the economic crisis of the 1930s. “This is why we need a full-scale mobilization of the American military.”

Around the globe, billions are adapting to a new reality, with countries like Italy, Spain and France on lockdown and several South American nations taking similar measures to try to stay ahead of the contagion, as global cases exceeded 315,000 and deaths top 13,000.

The lockdown affecting large segments of the American public to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus is likely to last 10 to 12 weeks, or until early June, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Sunday.

Lawmakers in Washington are nearing a deal that could pump a record $1 trillion into the economy to limit the economic damage from the coronavirus and will vote on the bill Monday.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Mnuchin said the package would give an average U.S. family of four a one-time payment of $3,000.

Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on Sunday became the first member of the Senate to announce he had tested positive for coronavirus. At least two members of the House of Representatives previously said they tested positive.

MEDICAL CRISIS

De Blasio said the city is not getting needed medical supplies from the federal government to contend with the rapid spread of the sometimes deadly illness.

Hospitals are scrambling for protective equipment for healthcare workers and for ventilators as they brace for a wave of patients who will need help breathing as severe cases often lead to pneumonia and decreased lung function.

Over the past week, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been pushing for aggressive steps to stem the economic hit, after Trump spent several weeks downplaying the virus’ risks.

Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Sunday said the White House recognized the urgency of New York’s situation.

“Not only is New York trying to get resources themselves, but we’re going to be pouring it in from the federal government,” he told CBS News.

U.S. drugmaker Merck & Co Inc said it delivered 500,000 donated masks to New York City on Sunday morning.

Cuomo warned that 40% to 80% of New York state residents may eventually contract coronavirus. He chastised those who were still congregating in parks and other places and not practicing social distancing. He noted 53% of the cases in New York are between the ages of 18 and 49.

“It’s insensitive, arrogant, self-destructive … and it has to stop, and it has to stop now,” he said, adding he was giving New York City authorities 24 hours to come up with a plan to deal with the situation. “This is not a joke and I’m not kidding.”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Bill Berkrot)