Pandemic-proofing: Insurance may never be the same again

By Noor Zainab Hussain

(Reuters) – Insurers are creating products for a world where virus outbreaks could become the new normal after many businesses were left out in the cold during the COVID-19 crisis.

While new pandemic-proof policies might not be cheap, they offer businesses from restaurants to film production companies to e-commerce retailers ways of insuring against disruptions and losses if another virus strikes.

The providers include big insurers and brokers adding new products to existing coverage, as well as niche players that see an opportunity in filling the void left by mainstream firms that categorize virus outbreaks like wars or nuclear explosions.

Tech firm Machine Cover, for example, aims to offer policies next year that would give relief during lockdowns. Using apps and other data sources, the Boston-based company measures traffic levels around businesses such as restaurants, department stores, hairdressers and car dealers.

If traffic drops below a certain level, it pays out, whatever the reason.

“This is the type of coverage which … businesses thought they had paid for when they bought their current business interruption policies before the coronavirus pandemic,” the company’s founder Inder-Jeet Gujral told Reuters.

“I believe this will be a major opportunity because post-COVID, it would be as irresponsible to not buy insurance against pandemics as it would be to not buy insurance against fire.”

The company is backed by insurer Hiscox and individual investors, mostly from the insurance and private equity world.

Restaurants in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Monday ordered dining to shut down soon after reopening, are now reeling, said Andrew Giambarba, a broker for Insurance Office of America in Doral, Florida.

“It’s been like they made it to the ninth round of the fight and were holding on when this punch came out of nowhere,” said Giambarba, whose clients include restaurants that did not get payouts under their business interruption coverage.

“Every niche that is dealing with insurance that is affected by business interruption needs every new product they can have.”

FILLING THE VOID

Pandemic exemptions have helped some insurers emerge relatively unscathed and the sector has largely resisted pressure to provide more virus cover. Indeed, some insurers that paid out for event cancellations and other losses have removed pandemics from their coverage.

British risk managers association Airmic said last week that the pandemic had contributed to a lack of adequate insurance at an affordable price and most of its members were looking at other ways to reduce risk.

To help fill the void in a locked-down world, Lloyd’s of London insurer Beazley Plc, started selling a contingency policy last month to insure organizers of streamed music, cultural and business events against technical glitches.

“These events are completely reliant on the technology working and a failure can be financially crippling,” said Mark Symons, contingency underwriter at Beazley.

Marsh, the world’s biggest insurance broker, has teamed up with AXA XL, part of France’s AXA, and data firm Arity, which is part of Allstate, to help businesses such as U.S. supermarket chains, restaurants and e-commerce retailers cope with the challenges of social distancing.

With home deliveries surging, firms have hired individual drivers to meet demand, but commercial auto liability insurance for “gig” contractors with their own vehicles is hard to find.

Marsh and its partners devised a policy based on usage with a price-by-mile insurance, which can be cheaper than typical commercial auto cover as delivering a pizza doesn’t have the same risks as driving people around.

“Even when the pandemic is over, we believe last-mile delivery will continue to grow,” said Robert Bauer, head of Marsh’s U.S. sharing economy and mobility practice.

A report by consultants Capgemini showed that demand for usage-based insurance has skyrocketed since COVID-19 first broke out and more than 50% of the customers it surveyed wanted it.

However, only half of the insurers interviewed by Capgemini for its World Insurance Report said they offered it.

BESPOKE COVER

Since businesses are only now learning how outbreaks can affect them, some new products are effectively custom-made.

Elite Risk Insurance in Newport Beach, California, has been offering “COVID outbreak relapse coverage” since May for businesses forced to shut down a second time, its founder Jeff Kleid said.

The policies are crafted around specific businesses and only pay out when certain conditions are met, Kleid said.

For film and television production companies that could be when a cast member contracts the virus, forcing them to stop shooting. Another client, which raises livestock for restaurants, is covered for a scenario in which it would be impossible to get animal feed.

Such policies do not come cheap. A $1 million policy could cost between about $80,000 to $100,000 depending on the terms.

“The insurance … is costly because it covers a risk that does not have a historical basis for calculating the price,” Kleid says.

And in March, when COVID-19 ravaged northern Italy, Generali’s Europ Assistance offered medical help, financial support and tele-consultations for sufferers when discharged from hospital, on top of regular health insurance.

It sold 1.5 million policies in just two weeks and now has 3 million customers in Europe and United States.

Some insurers are also working on changes to employee compensation and health insurance schemes. With millions of workers not expected to return to offices anytime soon, some large insurers in Asia are preparing coverage to account for that, according to people familiar with those efforts.

At least one Japanese insurer has started work on a product to cover employees for injury while working at home, they said.

“Working from home will be the new normal for years to come. That would make the scope of the employee compensation scheme meaningless if a person suffers an injury while at home,” said a Hong Kong-based senior executive at a European insurer.

(Reporting by Noor Zainab Hussain in Bengaluru, Suzanne Barlyn in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, Carolyn Cohn in London and Sumeet Chatterjee in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Muvija M; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and David Clarke)

COVID-19 pandemic plunges working world into crisis: ILO

GENEVA (Reuters) – Global leaders called for a comprehensive approach to counter the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which International Labor Organization chief Guy Ryder said on Wednesday had plunged the world of work into “unprecedented crisis”.

“Let’s be clear: it’s not a choice between health or jobs and the economy. They are interlinked: we will either win on all fronts or fail on all fronts,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told an ILO summit that will be addressed by dozens of heads of state and government via recorded messages.

World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the summit the world had a special duty to protect the millions of healthcare workers at the front line of the crisis and suffering increasing cases of infection and death.

“Together we have a duty to protect those who protect us,” he said.

The outlook for the global labor market in the second half of 2020 is “highly uncertain” and the forecast recovery will not be enough for employment to return to pre-pandemic levels this year, the ILO said last week.

The U.N. agency said the fall in global working hours was “significantly worse than previously estimated” in the first half of the year.

(Reporting by Emma Farge and Michael Shields; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.S. watchdog finds flaws in virus testing data, chews out Transport Dept, SBA

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Incomplete and inconsistent testing data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make it more difficult to know the COVID-19 infection rate, and take informed decisions on reopening communities, a U.S. government watchdog said.

The report issued by the Government Accountability Office on Thursday marked the first review of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and made recommendations to lawmakers on how to improve the fight to come out of crisis.

Some of its harshest criticism was reserved for the Small Business Administration (SBA), which oversees a $670 billion emergency loan programme to help companies survive the pandemic, and the lack of a plan from the Department of Transportation to improve the aviation sector’s response to outbreaks.

Detailing its findings on the coronavirus testing data, the GAO said the data that was collected at times included antibody tests that detect prior infections, and sometimes included counts on the number of samples tested, which could include multiple tests for one person.

“The absence of complete and consistent COVID-19 testing data reported through May 31, 2020, has made it more difficult to track and know the infection rate, mitigate the effect of infections, and inform decisions on reopening communities,” the watchdog said.

It said the United States is also missing a national aviation-preparedness plan for infectious diseases.

“While the Department of Transportation agreed that a plan is needed, as of May 2020, no such plan had been developed,” the watchdog said. It said the Transportation Department has maintained that other U.S. agencies should take the lead in planning for outbreaks.

As part of its recommendations to U.S. lawmakers, the watchdog said it is urging them to take legislative action to require the Transportation Department to work with others to develop a national plan.

It criticised the SBA for failing to give detailed descriptions of loans made in its data, and not outlining plans to review loans worth less than $2 million.

“We encountered the most difficulty trying to obtain information from the Small Business Administration (SBA),” said the watchdog,. “SBA to date has failed to provide information critical to our review.”

The SBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The level of transparency around U.S. government spending to fight the pandemic has been a contentious issue between various watchdogs and government agencies.

According to the watchdog, the U.S. government has set aside $2.6 trillion worth of spending to fight the pandemic, but spending so far is unknown as all agencies are not required to report their expenditures until July 2020.

(Reporting by Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

‘The government is failing us’: Laid-off Americans struggle in coronavirus crisis

By Andy Sullivan and Brad Brooks

(Reuters) – For Claudia Alejandra, unemployment has become a full-time job.

Since losing her position at the makeup counter at the Macy’s department store in Orlando, Florida, on March 28, Alejandra spends her days trying to secure the unemployment benefits that should have arrived weeks ago, sometimes placing more than 100 calls a day.

The online application, a 10-hour ordeal of error messages, ended with a notice that her identity could not be verified. If she’s lucky, she’ll reach a representative who will say there’s nothing they can do to help. Otherwise, it’s a busy signal, or an hours-long wait on hold, followed by a sudden hang-up.

Alejandra, 37, cashed out her retirement fund — $800, a year’s worth of savings — to make the monthly payments on her 2010 Mazda, but doesn’t know how she’ll pay the rent for her studio apartment or her phone bill. Longer-term goals — a promotion, a family, a house of her own — seem even more elusive.

Alejandra’s experience is similar to that of more than two dozen Americans thrown out of work during the coronavirus pandemic who Reuters interviewed over the past week.

While U.S. government guidelines say jobless workers who qualify for assistance should get payments within three weeks of applying, many — like Alejandra — are waiting twice that long. Increasingly desperate, some are lining up at food banks or bargaining with landlords to postpone bills. Most fill their days seeking answers from overwhelmed state bureaucracies.

Alejandra has not heard anything from the state — though she has gotten a fundraising email from Republican Senator Rick Scott, who set up the current unemployment system during his tenure as governor.

“I feel like the government is failing us,” she said in a telephone interview.

Florida has overhauled and expanded the computer system and brought in 2,000 agents to field calls, and plans an investigation of the system’s failings, Governor Ron DeSantis said at a Monday news conference. People who applied in March and haven’t gotten payments yet likely have not provided all of the required information or might not be eligible, he said.

“You’ve started to see a really significant volume of payments going out, and it’s really taken a major overhaul behind the scenes,” he said. His office did not respond to an email with detailed questions on the situation.

In the past six weeks, states have struggled to process over 33 million jobless claims, more than they typically see in a year. That figure does not capture those who have been unable to even file a claim due to bureaucratic hurdles — up to 14 million more, according to an Economic Policy Institute study released last week.

The Reuters interviews across four states — Florida, Michigan, Arizona and Minnesota — revealed a wide disparity in whether or when people received payments depending on where they live. In Minnesota, where state employees field queries on social media platforms as well as by phone, six out of seven jobless people said they were getting benefits — sometimes more than they were earning before.

In Florida, where a buggy computer system has spurred widespread outrage, only three out of eight people said they were getting payments, while all six people interviewed in Arizona and all eight in Michigan said they had not yet received payment.

The interviews, to be sure, do not represent a scientific sample of Americans’ experiences with jobless benefit systems. But the people interviewed described similar situations in each state. Some who had begun to be paid benefits said they believed public servants were doing their best to respond to a fast-moving crisis, but even those described difficulties in getting the system to work.

All four states face high levels of jobless claims and will be important in the Nov. 3 presidential election. The governors of Florida and Arizona are Republicans, those of Michigan and Minnesota Democrats.

‘I JUST NEED WHAT I’M OWED’

Before the pandemic, Detroit restaurant server Deshan Hedrick used to worry about saving for a new home. Now she has a new problem: where to find food to last her through the next few days.

Hedrick, who lives in a small house with a roommate and had never been laid off in 25 years of waitressing, hasn’t received an unemployment payment since she lost her job on March 16.

“I don’t know who to blame. I just need what I’m owed,” she said.

By one measure, Michigan is a relative success story. As of April 25, the state had enrolled 21.1% of eligible working-age adults into unemployment programs, the third-highest rate in the country and above the national rate of 13.3%, U.S. Labor Department figures show.

That’s little comfort to Hedrick, 40, who says she wrestled for more than a month with a website for processing claims that repeatedly failed and couldn’t get through by phone. Her claim wasn’t accepted until April 18. Under federal guidelines, she should have received funds by early April.

Hedrick, who has no kids and grew up poor in Detroit, earned about $3,200 a month at Starter’s Bar and Grill. By mid-April, she exhausted her $1,700 in savings. Now she’s surviving on noodles and canned soup donated by friends and faces a $4,000 backlog of bills — from utilities and insurance to her monthly rent of $825.

Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Erica Quealy acknowledged there have been delays but said that it has extended call center hours due to the surge in demand and delays, and has quadrupled the number of staffers helping customers.

Unemployment brought a different set of concerns for Phoenix resident Jamell Verse, who suffers from a chronic inflammatory disease called ankylosing spondylitis that causes severe pain in his joints, eyes and stomach.

His employer-based health insurance ended after he lost his job as an account executive on April 9. Now, Verse doesn’t know how he’ll pay for medication that costs $2,000 per month — or a visit to the hospital.

“When the disease flares up it’s quick and it’s violent and it’s with no notice,” he said.

Arizona Republican Governor Doug Ducey eased some restrictions in March, allowing recipients to get payments sooner and no longer requiring proof they are looking for work. But as of April 25, just 5.9% of eligible workers received those benefits, the fourth-lowest rate in the nation, according to a Reuters analysis of Labor Department data.

Verse, 41, says he applied for unemployment on April 10, the day after he lost his job but has yet to receive a payment — or a response of any sort. Like applications in most other states, Verse’s claim has been held up by anti-fraud measures designed to weed out those who don’t qualify. A letter asking him to confirm his application arrived on the day it was due, prompting a scramble to find a fax machine to get it back on time.

The state requires him to speak with a representative before he can get his payments, but the phone lines have been jammed. He says he calls 100 times a day, sometimes starting two hours before the phone lines open at 7 a.m. local time on weekdays in hopes of snagging a spot at the front of the virtual line.

Last week Verse went to the state’s unemployment agency office. Staffers told him to call the same number he has been trying for weeks. “All they were doing was telling people to call the phone numbers that are listed online,” Verse said. “That upset me even more, because their phone lines are all backed up.”

The Arizona Department of Economic Security, which administers unemployment benefits, said it has added 310 staffers since the pandemic began and was hiring 200 more. The state has also contracted with a private-sector call center to help keep up with high call volumes. Officials in Arizona and the three other states declined to discuss the specifics of the cases of the people Reuters interviewed.

PRIORITIES: MORTGAGE, FOOD AND DIAPERS

The picture appears brighter in Minnesota, which says a worker who files a claim can expect to receive their first payment that same week. The state provides a maximum weekly payment of $740, one of the highest figures in the United States. As of April 18, the state had registered of 13.8% its covered workforce, slightly better than the national average.

As elsewhere, Minnesota initially faced a deluge of applications. Residents interviewed by Reuters say they struggled to reach someone by phone, especially in the first half of April.

Car salesman Preston Jorgensen estimates he placed 200 calls a day using an automatic redialer for two weeks after his application was rejected on April 5, encountering busy signals each time. After weeks of sleuthing — contacting elected representatives, trading tips on social media, and calling other state offices — he thought he caught a break when he was transferred to a line that appeared to work. It rang and he got through. But after five hours on hold, he was disconnected.

Two weeks ago, a state employee called to tell him that his claim had been resolved.

Jorgensen, 36, says his monthly payment of $1,340 falls short of the $8,000 or so he used to earn each month, but covers his mortgage payments and food and diapers for his three young children. His wife, a stay-at-home mother, is expecting another child. The weeks spent trying to resolve his claim were frustrating, he says, but he expressed sympathy for overwhelmed state workers.

“It’s a new time for us as a country and they’re trying to do what they can,” he said.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development said it was working to process the high volume of applicants and enroll eligible people as fast as possible.

In Florida, Governor DeSantis has faced an angry backlash as his state has failed to deliver for hundreds of thousands of jobless residents.

As of April 25, the state was providing benefits to just 4.1% of its covered workforce, the lowest in the nation. In response to a request for comment, state officials cited state figures showing that as of Tuesday 43% of the 1.1 million people who applied for unemployment benefits received payments.

“I’m willing to take anything at this point,” said Jessica Da Silva, 40, was laid off from her restaurant job in the coastal city of Port St. Lucie and was told she qualified for state and federal benefits that totaled about half the $1,200 or so she typically earned in a week. As she and her husband juggle bills and defer payments, she’s riding a bicycle to reduce stress.

“It does a number on you — it causes loss of sleep, it causes you to either overeat, or not eat at all,” said Da Silva.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington and Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Scott Malone and Jason Szep)

UK puts military on standby as coronavirus shuts down swathes of London

Reuters
By Guy Faulconbridge and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom put 20,000 military personnel on standby, closed dozens of underground train stations across London and Queen Elizabeth left the city for Windsor Castle as the coronavirus crisis shut down whole swathes of the economy.

As the coronavirus outbreak sweeps across the world, governments, companies and investors are grappling with the biggest public health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic, panicked populations and imploding financial markets.

Against a background of panic buying in supermarkets and the biggest fall in sterling for decades, the British government moved to quash rumors that travel in and out of London would be restricted.

“There is zero prospect of any restriction being placed on traveling in or out of London,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman told reporters.

He said police were responsible for maintaining law and order and there were no plans to use the military for this purpose, though the government put military reservists on formal notification.

But dozens of underground train stations across the capital were due to be closed and an industry source said supermarkets were expecting police support amid the fears that London was facing a virtual shutdown.

After ordering the closure of schools across a country that casts itself as a pillar of Western stability, Johnson on Wednesday said the government was ruling nothing out when asked whether he would bring in measures to lock down London.

Johnson has asked the government to come up with plans for a so-called lockdown which would see businesses closed, transport services reduced, gatherings limited and more stringent controls imposed on the city.

Queen Elizabeth on Thursday left the capital for her ancient castle at Windsor. The monarch has also agreed to postpone the planned state visit by Japanese Emperor Naruhito in June.

LONDON CLOSING?

London’s transport authority said it would close up to 40 underground train stations until further notice and reduce other services including buses and trains. The line between Waterloo station and the City of London financial district would be closed.

“People should not be traveling, by any means, unless they really, really have to,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said.

Britain has so far reported 104 deaths from coronavirus and 2,626 confirmed cases, but UK scientific advisers say more than 50,000 people might have already been infected.

Britain faces a “massive shortage” of ventilators that will be needed to treat critically ill patients suffering from coronavirus, after it failed to invest enough in intensive care equipment, a leading ventilator manufacturer said.

With the world’s fifth largest economy coming to a standstill, the pound on Wednesday plunged to its lowest since March 1985, barring a freak “flash crash” in October 2016. On Thursday the pound was down 0.5% at $1.1570.

British shoppers were queuing around the block early on Thursday morning to buy basic supplies such as bottled water and tinned goods ahead of an expected toughening of measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Supermarkets have been forced to limit purchases after frantic shoppers stripped shelves. Outside one Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London on Thursday, a huge queue had formed ahead of opening, with people standing calmly in the rain.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Dylan Martinez, Kate Holton and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Michael Holden and Giles Elgood)

Stunned world grapples with ‘once-in-100-year’ coronavirus battle

By Swati Pandey and Ryan Woo

SYDNEY/BEIJING (Reuters) – Hundreds of millions of people worldwide were adjusting on Wednesday to once-in-a-generation measures to battle the coronavirus crisis that is not only killing the old and vulnerable but also threatening prolonged economic misery.

The fast-spreading disease that jumped from animals to humans in China has now infected about 200,000 people and caused nearly 8,500 deaths in 164 nations, triggering emergency lockdowns and injections of cash unseen since World War Two.

“This is a once-in-a-hundred-year type event,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, warning the crisis could last six months as his nation became the latest to restrict gatherings and overseas travel.

“Life is changing in Australia, as it is changing all around the world,” he added, as his government prepared for a potentially exponential rise after only six deaths so far.

There was particular alarm in Italy, which has experienced an unusually high death rate – 2,503 from 31,506 cases – and was drafting thousands of student doctors into service before final exams to help an overwhelmed health service.

Around the world, rich and poor alike saw lives turned upside-down as events were canceled, shops stripped, workplaces emptied, streets deserted, schools shut and travel at a minimum.

“Cleanliness is important – but here it’s not easy,” said Marcelle Diatta, a 41-year-old mother of four in Senegal where announcements rang from loudspeakers urging people to wash hands but water was often cut off in her suburb.

The crisis has created a wave of solidarity in some countries, with neighbors, families and colleagues coming together to look after the most needy, including dropping supplies at the doors of those forced to stay indoors.

In the hills of southern Spain, applause rings out every evening at 8 p.m. as self-isolated neighbors thank health services for their work and greet each other.

Spooked by a seemingly inevitable global recession, rich nations are unleashing billions of dollars in stimulus to economies, aid to health services, loans to tottering businesses, and help for individuals fearful for mortgages and other routine payments.

BOUNCE BACK OR LONG RECESSION?

“We have never lived through anything like this. And our society, which had grown used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself in a war to defend all we have taken for granted,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez Sanchez told parliament.

The chamber was nearly empty with most lawmakers kept away.

Extra cash from governments and central banks failed to calm markets: stocks and oil prices reeled again.

Taking their cue from the waning of the coronavirus in China, where it emerged at the end of last year, optimists predict a bounce back once the epidemic also passes its peak elsewhere – hoped to be within months.

Pessimists are factoring in the possibility of recurring outbreaks and years of pain, some even whispering comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

On the ground, millions of workers fear for their jobs.

Restaurants, bars and hotels have been shuttered and in the airline industry, facing the worst crisis in living memory, tens of thousands have already been laid off or put on unpaid leave.

In China, the jobless rate rose to 6.2% in February, the highest since records began, and up from 5.2% in December.

The majority of businesses and factories – apart from the epicenter in Hubei province – have reopened, but it is unclear how many workers and staff have actually returned. Some sectors are faring better than others, such as pharmaceuticals, supermarkets, food suppliers, and utilities.

GEOPOLITICS FLARE

Some geopolitical frictions, however, continued as normal – or were even exacerbated by the crisis. A European Union document accused Russian media of stoking panic in the West via misinformation over the disease.

Moscow has denied such accusations in the past.

In other long-rumbling frictions, China withdrew press credentials of three American journalists in a dispute over media freedoms and coverage of the coronavirus.

The U.S. election race carried on, with Joe Biden coasting to victory in three Democratic presidential primaries. A hiatus in campaigning is now expected due to the epidemic.

The coronavirus has dampened passions in some hotspots, such as Hong Kong where anti-Beijing protests had been raging. But in others, anti-establishment demonstrators were adamant they would not be sidetracked.

“The system is trying to use coronavirus as an argument to end our revolution,” teacher Mohamed Hachimi said of a ban on protests in Algeria. “Marches will continue!”

As China’s outbreak appeared over the worst, while the West’s was spiraling, overseas Chinese students began flying home after campuses shut their gates.

“There’s lots of uncertainty and I think having more of a support structure – family and friends in China – would make this period easier,” said 20-year-old Harvard University undergraduate Roger Zhang, returning home to Shenzhen.

With most major sports events now canceled, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was under increasing pressure to reconsider the summer Games in Japan.

Several athletes, including reigning Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, said athletes’ health was at risk as they juggled training with coronavirus shutdowns.

“We all want Tokyo to happen but what is the Plan B if it does not happen?” Stefanidi told Reuters.

($1 = 0.9125 euros)

(Reporting by Swati Pandey and Colin Packham in Sydney, Ryan Woo and Tony Munroe in Beijing, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Nathan Allen in Madrid, John Whitesides in Washington, Angelo Amante and Crispian Balmer in Rome, David Kirton in Shenzhen, Karolos Grohmann in Athens, Aaron Ross in Dakar; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Peter Graff)

Coronavirus deaths, cases leap in China; markets shiver

By Winni Zhou and Dominique Patton

BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese province at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak reported a record rise in deaths and thousands more cases on Thursday under a new diagnostic method, raising fresh questions about the scale of the crisis.

The sharp rise in the headline number of deaths and infections unnerved world markets, as traders halted a recent rally in stocks and retreated back to the safety of government bonds and gold.

Health officials in China’s central province of Hubei said 242 people had died from the flu-like virus on Wednesday, the fastest rise in the daily count since the pathogen was identified in December.

That took total deaths in China from the newly discovered virus to 1,367, up 254 from the previous day, the National Health Commission said.

For all related coverage on the outbreak, click: https://www.reuters.com/live-events/coronavirus-6-id2921484

For related Reuters graphics on the new coronavirus, click: https://tmsnrt.rs/2GVwIyw

The spike in numbers came a day after markets were cheered when China reported its lowest number of new cases in two weeks, bolstering a forecast by the country’s senior medical adviser that the epidemic could end by April.

Hubei had previously only allowed infections to be confirmed by RNA tests, which can take days to process. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information allowing for identification of organisms like viruses.

But it has begun using quicker computerised tomography (CT) scans, which reveal lung infections, the Hubei health commission said, to confirm virus cases and isolate them faster.

As a result, another new 14,840 cases were reported in the central province on Thursday, from 2,015 new cases nationwide a day earlier. But excluding cases confirmed using the new methods, the number of new cases rose by only 1,508.

About 60,000 people have now been confirmed to have the virus, the vast majority of them in China.

The new diagnostic procedure could explain the spike in deaths, said Raina McIntyre, head of biosecurity research at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.

“Presumably, there are deaths which occurred in people who did not have a lab diagnosis but did have a CT,” she told Reuters. “It is important that these also be counted.”

The new testing is only being used in Hubei, officials said.

TENTATIVE SLOWING?

Under the new system, suspected cases were being confirmed, and if the number of deaths did not rise as fast, that would mean the disease was less deadly than thought, said Dr Eyal Leshem of the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine.

“The real mortality rate of the disease may be lower,” Leshem said.

Consultancy Capital Economics said the surge did not necessarily point to an acceleration in the spread of the virus but rather that official figures had been understating its prevalence.

“For now, the latest figures don’t appear to undermine the recent tentative signs that the spread of the virus may be slowing,” it said.

Frank Benzimara, head of Asia Equity Strategy, at Society Generale in Hong Kong, said the new figures had not sparked panic in financial markets: “It can be seen as an exercise of transparency.”

The outbreak, which is believed to have emerged late last year from a market in Wuhan where wildlife was traded illegally, is one of the biggest tests facing the Chinese government in years and blame has fallen on provincial leaders.

State media said provincial Communist Party boss Jiang Chaoliang had been sacked as secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee, and Ma Guoqiang had been removed as party chief in the provincial capital Wuhan.

CRUISE TO CAMBODIA

Media did not give a reason for the dismissals, but the two are the most high-profile officials to be removed from duty since the outbreak began.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday the number of infections in China had stabilised but it was too early to say the epidemic was slowing.

Chinese scientists are testing two antiviral drugs and preliminary clinical trial results are weeks away, but a vaccine could take 18 months to develop.

Hundreds of infections have been reported in more than two dozen other countries and territories, but only two people have died from the virus outside mainland China – one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.

The biggest cluster of cases outside China is on a cruise ship quarantined off the Japanese port of Yokohama, where a further 44 cases were reported on Thursday. In all, 219 of about 3,700 people on board have tested positive.

There was a happy ending for another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, which docked in Cambodia after being denied docking rights in Guam, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears that one of its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew might have the virus, even though none had tested positive.

Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, remains under virtual lockdown, and other major Chinese cities face severe restrictions.

(Reporting by Winnie Zhou Yawen Chen and Dominique Patton in Beijing; Brenda Goh, Josh Horwitz and David Stanway in Shanghai; Keith Zhai, d John Geddie, tom Westbrook in Singapore; James Pearson in Hanoi, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Stephen Coates and Robert Birsel; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S., Iran draw back from brink but new threats show crisis not over

By Babak Dehghanpisheh, Parisa Hafezi and Ahmed Aboulenein

DUBAI/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran spurned the U.S. president’s call for a new nuclear pact and its commanders threatened more attacks, after both sides backed off from intensified conflict following the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and Tehran’s retaliatory missile strikes.

Concern the Middle East was primed for a wider war eased after U.S President Donald Trump refrained from ordering more military action on Wednesday and Iran’s foreign minister diplomat said missile strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response.

But each side’s next move in their protracted shadow war was uncertain, although Iranian generals resumed their habitual barrage of warnings to Washington.

Trump’s Democratic critics have accused him of reckleness in his handling of Iran.

But analysts say that in an election year, he wants to avoid getting into a drawn-out conflict. In turn, Iran will try to avert direct confrontation with superior U.S. forces but can call on proxy militias across the region as U.S. sanctions bite.

Iran fired missiles on Wednesday at bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were stationed in retaliation for the killing in a U.S. drone attack of powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

The actions followed months of tension that has increased steadily since Trump pulled the United States out of Iran’s nuclear pact with world powers in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that have driven down Tehran’s oil exports and hammered its economy.

Trump told Americans in an address on Wednesday: “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it”.

The Iranian missiles fired on military bases in Iraq had not harmed any U.S. troops, he said. Iran “appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned,” he said.

‘ECONOMIC TERRORISM’

Trump also said it was time for world powers to replace the 2015 nuclear accord with a new deal that would allow Iran to “thrive and prosper”.

But Trump, who was impeached last month, also said he would impose more stringent sanctions on Iran, without giving details.

Iran’s U.N. ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said in response that Tehran could not trust any idea of dialogue when Trump was threatening to intensify the “economic terrorism” of sanctions, the official news agency IRNA reported.

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards also issued new threats to Washington, with one senior commander warning of “harsher revenge soon” and another saying Wednesday’s missile strikes were only the start of a series of attacks across the region.

The new head of the Quds Force, which handles Iran’s foreign military operations, said he would follow the course pursued by his slain predecessor Soleimani.

“We will continue in this luminous path with power,” Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani said.

Soleimani carved out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well the United States and Israel.

Soleimani was a national hero whose funeral drew vast crowds of mourners. The West saw him as a dangerous and ruthless enemy.

The military comments contrasted with Wednesday’s remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said Tehran did not want an escalation.

Despite tough talk, analysts said Iran would not seek a conventional war with Washington although it might turn to allied forces in the area.

“I’m not expecting further direct attacks from Iran. We are likely to see more indirect responses through proxies,” said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

He said there might be a chance for a negotiated solution to the latest standoff as “the Trump administration does not appear to actively pursue a war and Iran needs sanctions relief”.

Trump has often criticized his predecessors for involving the United States in long and costly foreign wars.

PATIENCE

Washington said it had indications Tehran was telling its allies to refrain from new action against U.S. troops.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, speaking on Fox News, said: “We continue to receive word that Iran is standing down, but at the president’s direction we’re going to remain vigilant.”

In neighboring Iraq, Muslim Shi’ite groups opposed to the U.S. presence there also sought to cool emotions that have been running high for weeks.

Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi’ite cleric opposed to U.S. and Iranian interference in Iraq, said the crisis was over and called on “Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions”.

Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia the United States blamed for an attack in Iraq in December that killed a U.S. contractor, said “passions must be avoided to achieve the desired results” of expelling U.S. forces.

Washington said Iran launched 16 short-range ballistic missiles in Wednesday’s strikes, with at least 11 hitting Iraq’s al-Asad air base and one striking a facility in Erbil.

Satellite pictures of al-Asad base before and after the strikes showed damage, including to aircraft hangers.

The images offered limited insight into Iran’s strategy but gave some indication of missile accuracy, an analyst said.

“The impacts are not scattershot across empty fields or airstrips on the southern side of the base,” Dara Massicot, policy researcher at RANDCorporation, said, adding that they did not appear to be purely symbolic strikes.

“Early warning, maybe tip-offs, missile failures, and on-base readiness saved lives,” Massicot said.

U.S. and European government sources said they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties in its missile strikes to prevent an escalation.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh, Parisa Hafezi and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region

‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region
By Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Looting, fighting and roadblocks convulsed Bolivia on Monday after President Evo Morales’ resignation ended his 14-year rule and created a power vacuum following weeks of violent protests.

The departure of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was the last survivor of a wave of leftist leaders in Latin America from two decades ago, came on Sunday when the military abandoned him amid unrest over his disputed Oct. 20 re-election.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced “manipulations” of that vote, exhorted Bolivian lawmakers to meet urgently to resolve the crisis.

With Morales’ deputy and many allies in government and parliament gone with him, opposition politician and Senate second vice-president Jeanine Añez flew into the capital saying she was willing to take temporary control until a new vote.

“I am afraid of what will happen, everything is a mess in the city. There are fights between neighbours,” said Patricia Paredes, a 25-year-old secretary in La Paz.

Overnight, gangs roamed the highland capital and other cities, businesses were attacked, rival political supporters clashed and properties were set on fire.

Schools and shops were largely closed, while public transport halted and roads were blocked.

Morales, 60, flew out of La Paz and was believed to still be in Bolivia – but his exact whereabouts were unclear.

He said he stepped down to ease the violence, but repeated on Monday accusations he was the victim of a conspiracy by political enemies including election rival Carlos Mesa and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho.

“The world and our Bolivian patriots repudiate the coup,” he tweeted. “They moved me to tears. They never abandoned me. I will never abandon them.”

DIVIDED LATIN AMERICA

Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernandez echoed Morales’ denunciations of a coup, as did Mexico which has offered him asylum. “It’s a coup because the army requested the resignation of the president, and that violates the constitutional order of that country,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

In a redrawing of Latin America’s political landscape, the left has regained power in both Mexico and Argentina, though powerhouse Brazil still retains a right-wing government.

“A great day,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted, in apparent reference to events in Bolivia.

In Venezuela, opponents of Morales ally Nicolas Maduro also hailed the fall of the Bolivian leader whom they call a “dictator”, saying they hoped Maduro would be next.

Further afield, the United States urged civilian leaders to keep control. Russia backed Morales, accusing the opposition of violence and quashing dialogue.

Amid the chaos, prominent Bolivian opposition figure and academic Waldo Albarracin tweeted that his house had been set on fire by Morales supporters.

Another widely-shared video appeared to show people inside Morales’ own property with graffiti daubed on the walls.

“People are trying to cause chaos,” fretted Edgar Torrez, a 40-year-old business administrator in La Paz, saying politicians and criminals were all taking advantage of the situation.

TEMPORARY LEADER

Under Bolivian law, the head of the Senate would normally take over provisionally. However, Senate President Adriana Salvatierra also stepped down on Sunday.

Legislators were expected to meet on Monday to agree on an interim commission or legislator who would take temporary control, according to a constitutional lawyer.

“If I have the support of those who carried out this movement for freedom and democracy, I will take on the challenge, only to do what’s necessary to call transparent elections,” said senator Añez, who is constitutionally next in line to assume the presidency.

Añez flew into El Alto airport near La Paz on Monday, where another senator Arturo Murillo told reporters she was taken by an Air Force helicopter to a military academy, from where she was expected to travel to Congress.

“The military were waiting on the tarmac and they said it was safer to take them by helicopter,” he said. “I want to trust the military. I have my faith in the police.”

At a press conference, Mesa asked the police and mobilized civilian groups to guarantee the arrival of legislators across the political spectrum to the central Plaza Murillo to formalize Morales’ resignation and push forward new elections.

“Upon them (the lawmakers) rests the democracy and stability of the country,” he said.

Bolivia under Morales had one of the region’s strongest economic growth rates and its poverty rate was cut in half, but his determination to cling to power and seek a fourth term alienated many allies, even among indigenous communities.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, Gram Slattery, Monica Machicao in La Paz, Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Dave Graham and Miguel Gutierrez in Mexico City, Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Cawthorne)

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent

Prime Minister Hariri resigns as Lebanon crisis turns violent
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saad al-Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on Tuesday, declaring he had hit a “dead end” in trying to resolve a crisis unleashed by huge protests against the ruling elite and plunging the country deeper into turmoil.

The move by the leading Sunni politician points to rising political tensions that may complicate the formation of a new government able to tackle Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since its 1975-90 civil war.

The resignation of Hariri, who has been traditionally backed by the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, raises the stakes and pushes Lebanon into an unpredictable cycle. Lebanon could end up further under the sway of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, making it even harder to attract badly-needed foreign investment.

It also defies Hezbollah, which had wanted him to stay on. Hariri is seen as the focal point for Western and Gulf Arab aid to Lebanon, which is in dire need of financial support promised by these allies.

Hariri addressed the nation after a mob loyal to the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and Amal movements attacked and destroyed a protest camp set up by anti-government demonstrators in Beirut.

It was the most serious strife on the streets of Beirut since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control of the capital in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies.

Lebanon has been paralyzed by the unprecedented wave of protests against the rampant corruption of the political class.

“For 13 days the Lebanese people have waited for a decision for a political solution that stops the deterioration (of the economy). And I have tried, during this period, to find a way out, through which to listen to the voice of the people,” Hariri said.

“It is time for us to have a big shock to face the crisis,” he said. “To all partners in political life, our responsibility today is how we protect Lebanon and revive its economy.”

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, could now either accept Hariri’s resignation and begin consultations toward forming a new government, or ask him to rethink.

It took nine months to form the Hariri coalition cabinet that took office in January.

Some demonstrators vowed to stay in the street.

Protester Tarek Hijazi said the resignation was “a first step in building a patriotic democratic country, on the road to achieving the demands of the Oct. 17 uprising”.

The turmoil has worsened Lebanon’s acute economic crisis, with financial strains leading to a scarcity of hard currency and a weakening of the pegged Lebanese pound. Lebanese government bonds tumbled on the turmoil.

TENTS ON FIRE

On the streets of Beirut, black-clad men wielding sticks and pipes attacked the protest camp that has been the focal point of countrywide rallies against the elite.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the heavily armed, Iran-backed Hezbollah, said last week that roads closed by protesters should be reopened and suggested the demonstrators were financed by its foreign enemies and implementing their agenda.

Smoke rose as some of the protester tents were set ablaze by Hezbollah and Amal supporters, who earlier fanned out in the downtown area of the capital shouting “Shia, Shia” in reference to themselves and cursing anti-government demonstrators.

“With our blood and lives we offer ourselves as a sacrifice for you Nabih!” they chanted in reference to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, head of the Amal Movement. “We heed your call, we heed your call, Nasrallah!” they chanted.

Security forces did not initially intervene to stop the assault, in which protesters were hit with sticks and were seen appealing for help as they ran, witnesses said. Tear gas was eventually fired to disperse the crowds.

Hariri did not refer to the violence in his address but urged all Lebanese to “protect civil peace and prevent economic deterioration, before anything else”.

France, which has supported Hariri, called on all Lebanese to help guarantee national unity.

LEBANESE POUND UNDER PRESSURE

Lebanon’s allies last year pledged $11 billion in financing to help it revive its economy, conditional on reforms that Hariri’s coalition government has largely failed to implement.

But there has been no sign of a rush to help.

A senior U.S. State Department official said last week this was not a situation where the Lebanese government should necessarily get a bailout, saying they should reform first.

Banks were closed for a 10th day along with schools and businesses.

Hariri last week sought to defuse popular discontent through a batch of reform measures agreed with other groups in his coalition government, including Hezbollah, to – among other things – tackle corruption and long-delayed economic reforms.

But with no immediate steps toward enacting these steps, they did not placate the demonstrators.

Central bank governor Riad Salameh called on Monday for a solution to the crisis in just days to restore confidence and avoid a future economic meltdown.

A black market for U.S. dollars has emerged in the last month or so. Three foreign currency dealers said a dollar cost 1,800 pounds on Tuesday, weakening from levels of 1,700 and 1,740 cited on Monday.

The official pegged rate is 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar.

“Even if the protesters leave the streets the real problem facing them is what they are going to do with the devaluation of the pound,” said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser to the IMF and to the Lebanese finance minister.

“A very large majority of the Lebanese income is in the Lebanese pound, their savings are in the Lebanese pound and their pension is in Lebanese, and it is certain it has already started to devalue,” he said.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht, Laila Bassam, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington, Samia Nakhoul and Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)