Canada coronavirus deaths jump by 35% in less than a day: official

OTTAWA (Reuters) – The Canadian death toll from a worsening coronavirus outbreak has jumped by 35% to 89 in less than a day, chief public health officer Theresa Tam told reporters on Tuesday.

By 9 a.m. eastern time (1300 GMT) the total number of those diagnosed with the coronavirus had risen by 15% to 7,708. The respective figures at 1200 ET on Monday were 66 deaths and 6,671 positive diagnoses.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

California issues ‘stay home’ order; U.S. death toll hits 200

By Dan Whitcomb and David Shepardson

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – California issued an unprecedented statewide “stay at home” order on Thursday for its 40 million residents and Washington warned Americans to return home or stay abroad indefinitely, as the number of coronavirus deaths in the country hit 200.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s directive, effective immediately, marks the largest and most sweeping government clampdown yet in the worsening public health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak, which he predicted could infect more than half the state within eight weeks.

As authorities ramped up measures to keep the virus from spreading, Washington could announce restrictions on travel across the U.S.-Mexico border as soon as Friday, limiting crossings to essential travel, two officials briefed on the matter said. That would follow a similar measure on Wednesday closing the border with Canada.

The fast-spreading respiratory illness has shattered most patterns of American life: shuttering schools and businesses, prompting millions to work from home, forcing many out of jobs and sharply curtailing travel.

The U.S. State Department told citizens that if they travel internationally, “your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe.”

STIMULUS PACKAGE

With the economy swooning, Senate Republicans unveiled a $1 trillion economic stimulus plan to provide funds directly to businesses and the American public. President Donald Trump has been eagerly calling for that package.

It would be Congress’ third emergency coronavirus bill following a $105 billion-plus plan covering free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending, and an $8.3 billion measure to combat the spread of the highly contagious pathogen and develop vaccines.

The plunging stock market and surging U.S. death toll has caused Trump to sharply change his tone on the disease this week, demanding urgent action after spending weeks downplaying the risks.

Over 13,000 people across the United States have been diagnosed with the illness called COVID-19 and 200 have died, with the largest numbers so far in Washington state, New York and California.

Newsom said his ‘stay at home’ order was essential as modelling showed 56% of California’s 40 million people would contract the virus in the next eight weeks, and require nearly 20,000 more hospital beds than the state could provide.

“We are confident the people of California will abide by it, they will meet this moment,” Newsom, a first-term Democrat told a news briefing from the state capital in Sacramento.

Los Angeles, as the nation’s second-largest city, would likely be “disproportionately impacted” in the coming weeks, he said.

Two Los Angeles Lakers players have the coronavirus, the NBA franchise said on Thursday, after four players from the Brooklyn Nets tested positive for the disease a day earlier.

The virus has taken the greatest toll in Washington state, which reported eight more deaths on Thursday, bringing the toll there to 74.

Hospitals across the country say they face shortages of medical gear, with doctors in Seattle reduced to making their own face masks out of sheets of plastic.

“We’re days away from running out of the equipment we need,” said Melissa Tizon, Associate Vice President of Providence St. Joseph Health, which runs 51 hospitals across five western states. “We’re expecting more shipments later on but until then we’ve got to improvise.”

TEST DELAYS

With the United States slow to roll out mass testing for the virus that has infected more than 244,000 people worldwide, officials fear the number of known cases of the respiratory illness that can lead to pneumonia lags far behind reality.

There are no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19, but several options are being tested.

New York City, where many young people last weekend packed local bars and restaurants, has been eerily deserted after nightfall.

“It’s a skater’s dream,” said Dyanna Hernandez, 20, who had joined a dozen friends in Manhattan’s Union Square to enjoy the freedom of what she called a “ghost city” after three days stuck at home. “I can’t really be quarantined.”

The epidemic, which has killed over 10,000 globally so far, has drawn comparisons with traumatic periods such as World War Two, the 2008 financial crisis and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surged by the most since 2012 to a 2-1/2-year high last week, as companies in the services sector laid off workers with businesses shutting down due to the pandemic.

Katie Vetere, 32, general manager of One 53, a small restaurant near Princeton, New Jersey, applied for benefits for the first time in her life after the restaurant was forced to shut down when state authorities banned table service.

Vetere expects her benefits to be less than half her regular weekly paycheck.

“I go from ‘I’m sad’ to ‘I’m scared’ to ‘I’m angry,'” she said. “Do I consider my job lost? I don’t know.”

(Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Jeff Mason in Washington, Laila Kearney, Jonathan Allen, Gabriella Borter and Leela de Kretser in New York, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by James Oliphant and Bill Tarrant; Editing by Scott Malone, Daniel Wallis & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Australia’s bushfire-stricken state pays tribute to 25 victims

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Families, firefighters and politicians gathered in a solemn public ceremony in Sydney on Sunday to honor the 25 people killed in recent bushfires that tore through the country’s most populous state.

The bushfires, which lasted from September until torrential rains hit earlier this month, killed 33 people and a billion native animals nationally and destroyed 2,500 homes and a wilderness area the size of South Korea.

The damage was most devastating in New South Wales state. Among the 25 people killed there were 19 civilians, three local volunteer firefighters and three U.S. firefighters.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who thanked those who fought the blazes and honored those who died, spoke of “children kissing the coffins of their fathers” and “mothers who should have never had to bury their children”.

He told the public, gathered around lit candles, of “a summer where the dark sky turned black and sunsets only signaled another night of terror, where the fire crashed on our beaches from the bush that surrounded them”.

Morrison has drawn public anger for his refusal to directly link the bushfires to climate change, insisting removing flammable vegetation is “just as important, if not more”.

His management of the fires also came under criticism over the unusually prolonged summer wildfire season, when he was forced into a rare public apology for taking a holiday to Hawaii.

Last week, he said Australia would conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into the causes of the fires.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who played a very public role during the crisis, said the season will be remembered as one of the most challenging, in which the loss of life was enormous.

“Each one of those is a story of grief, of profound loss, and great sadness, of lives cut short, and of families being changed forever,” Fitzsimmons said.

Six pairs of boots were placed to symbolize the lives of the three Australian volunteers and the three U.S. firefighters who died in NSW.

(Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sam Holmes)

Iran says coronavirus has spread to several cities, reports two new deaths

DUBAI (Reuters) – The coronavirus has spread to several Iranian cities, a health ministry official said on Friday, as an outbreak that the authorities say began in the holy city of Qom caused two more deaths.

Iran confirmed 13 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total in the country to 18, with four of the total having died.

“Based on existing reports, the spread of coronavirus started in Qom and with attention to people’s travels has now reached several cities in the country including Tehran, Babol, Arak, Isfahan, Rasht and other cities,” health ministry official Minou Mohrez said, according to the official IRNA news agency.

“It’s possible that it exists in all cities in Iran,” she said.

The majority of coronavirus cases in Iran have been in Qom, a Shi’ite Muslim holy city 120 km (75 miles) south of the capital Tehran.

The new cases comprised seven people diagnosed in Qom, four in the capital Tehran and two in Gilan province, Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said in a tweet.

Health officials had called on Thursday for the suspension of all religious gatherings in Qom.

“It’s clear that new coronavirus has circulated in the country and probably the source of this illness was Chinese workers who work in the city of Qom and had traveled to China,” health ministry official Mohrez said, according to IRNA.

The widening outbreak came as Iranians were voting in a parliamentary election seen as a referendum on authorities after a series of crises, including a near full-blown conflict with the United States last month.

State TV showed voters at polling centers in Qom wearing surgical masks on Friday.

Iraqi Airways has suspended flights to neighboring Iran as a protective measure against the coronavirus outbreak, the Iraqi state news agency said on Thursday.

The epidemic originated in China and has killed more than 2,100 people there. New research suggesting the virus is more contagious than previously thought has added to the international alarm over the outbreak.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Coronavirus hits Chinese health workers as economy limps back to life

Coronavirus hits Chinese health workers as economy limps back to life
By Huizhong Wu

BEIJING (Reuters – The new coronavirus has infected 1,700 Chinese health workers and killed six, authorities said on Friday, as businesses struggled to balance containment measures with a return from an extended post-holiday break.

Authorities reported 5,090 new cases in mainland China, including more than 120 deaths, taking the total number of infected to 63,851, and the number of deaths from the disease, now labelled Covid-19, to 1,380.

“The duties of medical workers at the front are indeed extremely heavy; their working and resting circumstances are limited, the psychological pressures are great, and the risk of infection is high,” Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission, told a news conference.

For a full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak click here.

China’s factories and offices are only slowly creaking back into life after Lunar New Year holidays that were extended by 10 days in the struggle to rein in the virus, which emerged in December in Wuhan, capital of the central province of Hubei.

The problem is reviving the world’s second-largest economy when a staggering 500 million people are currently affected by movement and travel restrictions to contain the new virus – 2019-nCov.

 

The new national infection figures give no sign that the outbreak is nearing a peak, said Adam Kamradt-Scott, an infectious diseases expert at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

In cities such as Beijing, the capital, and the business hub of Shanghai, streets and subways remain largely deserted with many shops and restaurants empty or shut.

Government employee Jin Yang, 28, made it in to his Beijing office but found it “anything but normal”.

Canteen lunches are banned in favour of boxed meals eaten at desks. Meetings are held online, instead of in person. Employees must wear masks all day – and report their temperature twice a day.

WUHAN’S SELF-HELP

Wuhan, the city of 11 million people at the centre of the outbreak, has the most acute problem – and an impressive unofficial response.

With all public transport, taxis and ride-hailing services shut down in the city, volunteer drivers are responding to requests on ad hoc messaging groups to ferry medical staff and others in vital jobs to and from work, putting their own health on the line in the process.

Others work around the clock to find accommodation for medical workers in hotels that have volunteered their rooms.

Many of the drivers keep their identities secret to avoid objections from family and friends.

“Everyone in our group has such a strong sense of mission,” said 53-year-old Wuhan resident Chen Hui, who runs one of the ad hoc ride services.

But there is little sign that the tide has yet turned against a virus killing around 2% of those it infects – but able to spread much faster than other respiratory viruses that have emerged this century.

“While the Chinese authorities are doing their best to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the fairly drastic measures they have implemented to date would appear to have been too little, too late,” Kamradt-Scott said.

WHO official Simeon Bennett said: “We see no significant change in the trajectory of the outbreak.”

Economists polled by Reuters said China’s economic downturn would be short-lived if the outbreak was contained, but expected that this quarter would show China’s slowest growth rate since the global financial crisis.

CAR SALES SLIDE

The Chinese carmakers’ association said auto sales in China, the world’s largest market, were likely to slide more than 10% in the first half of the year due to the epidemic, and Germany’s Volkswagen said its sales to China had fallen 11% in January.

While the vast majority of infections and deaths have been in China, in particular Hubei, there have been nearly 450 cases in some 24 countries and territories outside mainland China, and three deaths.

Japan confirmed its first coronavirus death on Thursday – a woman in her 80s living in Kanagawa, near Tokyo. One person has died in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines.

Vietnam has imposed 20 days’ quarantine on Son Loi, a 10,000-strong rural community 44 km (27 miles) from the capital Hanoi, that is home to 11 of the 16 coronavirus cases reported in the country, two local officials told Reuters on Thursday.

The biggest cluster of infections outside China has been on a cruise liner quarantined in a Japanese port, with 218 people on board confirmed as infected and taken off to hospital.

On Friday, some of the passengers were allowed to disembark – with priority for older passengers confined to windowless cabins – and complete their quarantine on shore.

There was good news for another cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew.

It was finally allowed to dock in Cambodia after being rejected by five countries over fears of the virus, even though no cases had been reported on board.

Prime Minister Hun Sen greeted the passengers as they stepped off. “My wife and I gave him some chocolates as a show of our appreciation,” said Lou Poandel, a tourist from New Jersey.

One major operator, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd <RCL.N>, said it had cancelled 18 cruises in southeast Asia.

With thousands of flights to and from China cancelled, the International Civil Aviation Organization forecast that global airline revenue could fall by $4 billion to $5 billion in the first quarter.

But the WHO has told the International Olympic Committee there is no cause to cancel or relocate the Tokyo Olympics, which start in July, the head of the IOC’s Coordination Commission said.

(Reporting by Yilei Sun, Huizhong Wu, Vincent Lee, Brenda Goh, Gabriel Crossley and David Stanway in Beijing; Prak Chan Thul in Sihanoukville; Hideyuki Sano in Tokyo; Colin Packham and Paulina Duran in Sydney; Uday Sampath in Bengaluru; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Stephen Coates and Philippa Fletcher)

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. halts sending bomb-sniffing dogs to Jordan, Egypt as seven die

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Monday it has stopped sending explosive-detecting dogs to Jordan and Egypt over concerns of deaths of deployed dogs from causes like heat stroke and poisoning.

The decision came after the State Department’s Office of Inspector General identified in September the deaths of two dogs sent to Jordan, the largest recipient of the dogs. A second report released last Friday put the total deaths at seven.

Some 135 dogs are in the Antiterrorism Assistance Program, which helps eight countries with border and aviation security. Dogs already working in Jordan and Egypt will remain there while U.S. authorities demand measures to improve the animals’ conditions and handling, a State Department official told reporters.

Prompted by a hotline complaint after the September report, the Inspector General found that two more dogs sent to Jordan had died, one of heat stroke and another of poisoning from insecticide sprayed in or near the kennel.

Three of the 10 dogs sent to Egypt under the program also died: one of lung cancer, one from a ruptured gall bladder and the other from heat stroke, the report found.

The September report said Zoe, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, had died in 2017 from heat stroke while working at the Syrian border. Mencey, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, was euthanized in the United States in 2018 after he had been returned from Jordan for treatment of a tick-borne disease.

According to the September report, a veterinarian told the Inspector General’s office that “heat injuries are cases of negligence and improper care and are not accidental” and that dogs who die of heat stroke “suffer a terrible death.”

The Inspector General found that dogs were sent to the foreign partners without signed written agreements outlining standards of care and that there were no adequate follow-up checks on dogs’ wellbeing.

“Improving health and welfare is something that’s continual and gradual. It will not happen overnight, and that’s why improving kennel conditions, improving how many times they check on the canines – those are all things we’re actively working on,” another State Department official said.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler)

Probes into New Zealand volcano tragedy to take months and carry criminal penalties

Probes into New Zealand volcano tragedy to take months and carry criminal penalties
By Praveen Menon and Charlotte Greenfield

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that official inquiries into last week’s fatal volcano eruption could take up to a year, and will carry potential criminal penalties of up to five years in jail.

Ardern also announced a NZ$5 million ($3.2 million) fund to help small businesses affected by the eruption, after New Zealanders held a minute of silence to honor the victims a week on from the tragedy.

The official death toll from the surprise eruption on White Island, also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, stands at 16. Two people whose bodies are believed to be in the waters around the island are still officially listed as missing.

A further 26 people remain in hospitals in New Zealand and Australia, many in critical condition with severe burn injuries.

“There remains now questions to be asked and questions to be answered,” Ardern told reporters in Wellington after she led the country in a minute of silence for the dead and injured, who included tourists from United States, Germany, China, Britain and Malaysia.

There has been growing criticism that people were allowed on the island, a popular destination for day-trippers, given the risks of an active volcano. That has led to speculation the tragedy could foretell major changes for New Zealand’s thrillseeker tourism economy.

WorkSafe, New Zealand’s primary regulator for workplace related incidents, has opened a health and safety investigation, Ardern said, while the coroner is conducting a separate inquiry.

Worksafe can prosecute individuals and companies for breaches of health and safety laws, with penalties including fines of up to NZ$3 million and jail terms of up to five years, Ardern said.

A coronial investigation is automatically triggered in the event of a sudden, violent or unnatural death. A coroner can also make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.

Ardern said the Worksafe investigation could take a year, while the coronial inquiry was “also likely to continue for some time.”

The NZ$5 million support fund is expected to be distributed among businesses in Whakatane, the mainland coastal town that serves as the jumping off point for trips to Whakaari. Asked if operators of tours to the island would be among the beneficiaries, Ardern said that specifics had not yet been determined.

SEARCH ONGOING

At White Island, recovery teams again conducted aerial searches in a bid to locate the bodies of the last two people known to have been on the island.

Six bodies were retrieved from the island on Friday, and officials believe the remaining two bodies are now likely to be in the surrounding waters. Naval divers are scheduled to continue the search on Tuesday.

“We will continue the operation for as long as we have a chance of recovering those bodies,” New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush told Radio New Zealand.

Many of dead and injured were Australians on a day tour from a Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd <RCL.N> ship. The 16-deck Ovation of the Seas docked back in Sydney on Monday, with some passengers disembarking in tears as they were reunited with family members.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with her New Zealand counterpart in Wellington on Monday to express Australia’s thanks to emergency and medical crews.

Legal experts said last week they expected to see lawsuits filed in the U.S. courts by injured passengers and families of those who died. Royal Caribbean’s potential liability for the deadly excursion could hinge on whether the eruption was an unforeseeable “act of God,” maritime lawyers told Reuters.

“We will to continue to provide ongoing support and services to them and their families during this difficult time,” a spokeswoman for the company said in an emailed statement on Monday.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington, additional reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; editing by Jane Wardell)

U.S. vaping-related deaths rise to 42, cases of illness to 2,172

U.S. vaping-related deaths rise to 42, cases of illness to 2,172
(Reuters) – U.S. health officials on Thursday reported 2,172 confirmed and probable cases and 3 more deaths from a mysterious respiratory illness tied to vaping, taking the death toll to 42, so far this year.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2,051 confirmed and probable U.S. lung injury cases and 39 deaths associated with use of e-cigarettes, or vaping products.

As of Nov. 13, 42 deaths have been confirmed in 24 states and the District of Columbia, the agency said. (http://bit.ly/2NrLYXW)

Health officials last week also dubbed the discovery of Vitamin E acetate — believed to be used as a cutting agent in illicit vaping products containing marijuana components — in all lung samples from 29 patients as a breakthrough in their investigation.

Investigators have not linked the cases to any specific product or compound, but have pointed to vaping oils containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, as being especially risky.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra and Saumya Sibi Joseph in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta)

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi “deplored the death toll” among protesters due to the crackdown of the Iraqi government and urged him to take immediate steps to address demonstrators’ demands, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday.

Iraqi security forces on Monday shot dead two protesters in the city of Nassiriya, bringing to 300 the number of people killed since protests against political corruption, unemployment and poor public services erupted in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and spread to the southern Shi’ite heartlands.

“The Secretary deplored the death toll among the protesters as a result of the Government of Iraq’s crackdown and use of lethal force, as well as the reports of kidnapped protesters,” Ortagus said in a statement.

The government has failed to find an answer to the unrest among mostly unemployed young people who see no improvement in their lives even in peacetime after decades of war and sanctions.

“Secretary Pompeo emphasized that peaceful public demonstrations are a fundamental element of all democracies,” Ortagus said and added that Pompeo urged Mahdi to address the protesters’ grievances by enacting reforms and tackling corruption.

The unrest is the biggest and most complex challenge to the Iraqi political order since the government declared victory over Islamic State two years ago.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chris Reese and Lisa Shumaker)