In global war on coronavirus, some fear civil rights are collateral damage

By Luke Baker, Matthew Tostevin and Devjyot Ghoshal

LONDON/BANGKOK/DELHI (Reuters) – In Armenia, journalists must by law include information from the government in their stories about COVID-19. In the Philippines, the president has told security forces that if anyone violates the lockdown they should “shoot them dead”. In Hungary, the premier can rule by decree indefinitely.

Across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, governments have introduced states of emergency to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, imposing some of the most stringent restrictions on civil liberties since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawyers and human rights campaigners said.

While such experts agree extraordinary measures are needed to tackle the deadliest pandemic in a century, some are worried about an erosion of core rights, and the risk that sweeping measures will not be rolled back afterwards.

“In many ways, the virus risks replicating the reaction to Sept. 11,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the welter of security and surveillance legislation imposed around the world after the al Qaeda attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

“People were fearful and asked governments to protect them. Many governments took advantage of that to undermine rights in ways that far outlasted the terrorist threat,” he told Reuters.

Roth was speaking about legislation in countries including the United States, Britain and EU states which increased collection of visa and immigrant data and counter-terrorism powers.

Some measures imposed in response to a crisis can become normalised, such as longer security queues at airports as a trade-off for feeling safer flying. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, similar trade-offs may become widely acceptable around issues such as surveillance, according to some political and social commentators.

South Korea’s use of mobile phone and other data to track potential carriers of the virus and impose quarantines has been a successful strategy and is a model that could be replicated around the world to guard against pandemics, they say.

Political consultant Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese minister, said people’s obsession with privacy had made it harder to combat threats like pandemics, when technology to trace the virus could help.

“I am more and more convinced the greatest battle of our time is against the ‘religion of privacy’. It literally could get us all killed,” he added.

EXTRAORDINARY CRISIS

As the virus has spread from China across the world, with more than 1.4 million people infected and 82,000 dead, governments have passed laws and issued executive orders.

The first priority of the measures is to protect public health and limit the spread of the disease.

“It’s quite an extraordinary crisis, and I don’t really have trouble with a government doing sensible if extraordinary things to protect people,” said Clive Stafford-Smith, a leading civil rights lawyer.

The U.S.-headquartered International Center for Not-For-Profit Law has set up a database to track legislation and how it impinges on civic freedoms and human rights.

By its count, 68 countries have so far made emergency declarations, while nine have introduced measures that affect expression, 11 have ratcheted up surveillance and a total of 72 have imposed restrictions on assembly.

EXTRAORDINARY POWERS

In Hungary for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party dominates parliament, has been granted the right to rule by decree in order to fight the epidemic, with no time-limit on those powers and the ability to jail people for up to five years if they spread false information or hinder efforts to quell the virus.

The Hungarian government said the law empowered it to adopt only measures for “preventing, controlling and eliminating” the coronavirus. Spokesman Zolan Kovacs said nobody knew how long the pandemic would persist, but that parliament could revoke the extra powers.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, an emergency law has been drafted to give additional powers to Hun Sen, who has been in office for 35 years and has been condemned by Western countries for a crackdown on opponents, civil rights groups and the media. The law is for three months and can be extended if needed.

The Cambodian government did not respond to a request for comment. Hun Sen defended the law at a news conference this week, saying it was only required so that he could declare a state of emergency, if needed, to stop the virus and saving the economy.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former coup leader who kept power after a disputed election last year, has invoked emergency powers that allow him to return to governing by decree. The powers run to the end of the month, but also can be extended.

“The government is only using emergency power where it is necessary to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” said Thai government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat.

In the Philippines, the head of police said President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to shoot lockdown violators was a sign of his seriousness rather than indicating people would be shot.

Neither the presidential spokesman nor the cabinet secretary responded to a request for comment.

PUBLIC HEALTH

For Roth and other human rights advocates, the dangers are not only to fundamental freedoms but to public health. They say restrictions on the media could limit the dissemination of information helpful in curbing the virus’s spread, for instance.

Indian premier Narendra Modi, criticised in the media for a lack of preparedness including inadequate protective gear for health workers, has been accused by opponents of trying to muzzle the press by demanding that it get government clearance before publishing coronavirus news, a request rejected by India’s supreme court.

The Indian government did not respond to a request for comment, while the Armenian government said it had no immediate comment. Both have said they want to prevent the spread of misinformation, which could hamper efforts to control the outbreak.

Carl Dolan, head of advocacy at the Open Society European Policy Institute, warned about the tendency for some governments to keep extraordinary powers on their books long after the threat they were introduced to tackle has passed.

Dolan proposed a mandatory review of such measures at least every six months, warning otherwise of a risk of “a gradual slide into authoritarianism”.

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul, Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan, Neil Jerome Morales in Manila, Panu Wongcha-Um in Bangkok, Linda Sieg in Tokyo, John Mair in Sydney, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia; Editing by Pravin Char)

Hunt on for ‘patient zero’ who spread coronavirus globally from Singapore

By John Geddie, Sangmi Cha and Kate Holton

SINGAPORE/SEOUL/LONDON (Reuters) – As lion dancers snaked between conference room tables laden with plastic bottles, pens, notebooks and laptops, some staff from British gas analytics firm Servomex snapped photos of the performance meant to bring good luck and fortune.

But the January sales meeting in a luxury Singapore hotel was far from auspicious.

Someone seated in the room, or in the vicinity of the hotel that is renowned for its central location and a racy nightclub in the basement, was about to take coronavirus global.

Three weeks later, global health authorities are still scrambling to work out who carried the disease into the mundane meeting of a firm selling gas meters, which then spread to five countries from South Korea to Spain, infecting over a dozen people.

Experts say finding this so-called “patient zero” is critical for tracing all those potentially exposed to infection and containing the outbreak, but as time passes, the harder it becomes.

“We do feel uncomfortable obviously when we diagnose a patient with the illness and we can’t work out where it came from…the containment activities are less effective,” said Dale Fisher, chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the World Health Organisation.

Authorities initially hinted at Chinese delegates, which included someone from Wuhan – the Chinese city at the epicentre of the virus that has killed over 1,350 people. But a Servomex spokesperson told Reuters its Chinese delegates had not tested positive.

Fisher and other experts have compared the Singapore meeting to another so-called “super-spreading” incident at a Hong Kong hotel in 2003 where a sick Chinese doctor spread Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome around the world.

The WHO has opened an investigation into the Singapore incident, but said its “way too early” to tell if it is a super-spreading event.

SCARY AND SOBERING

It was more than a week after the meeting – which according to a company e-mail included Servomex’s leadership team and global sales staff – that the first case surfaced in Malaysia.

The incubation period for the disease is up to 14 days and people may be able to infect others before symptoms appear.

The firm said it immediately adopted “extensive measures” to contain the virus and protect employees and the wider community. Those included self-isolation for all 109 attendees, of whom 94 were from overseas and had left Singapore.

But the virus kept spreading.

Two South Korean delegates fell sick after sharing a buffet meal with the Malaysian, who also passed the infection to his sister and mother-in-law. Three of the firm’s Singapore attendees also tested positive.

Then cases started appearing in Europe.

An infected British delegate had headed from the conference to a French ski resort, where another five people fell ill. Another linked case then emerged in Spain, and when the Briton returned to his home town in the south of England the virus spread further.

“It feels really scary that one minute it’s a story in China… and then the next minute it is literally on our doorstep,” said Natalie Brown, whose children went to the same school as the British carrier. The school said in a letter that two people at the school had been isolated.

“It’s scary and sobering how quickly it seems to have spread,” said Brown.

TIME RUNNING OUT

Back in Singapore, authorities were battling to keep track of new cases of local transmissions, many unlinked to previous cases.

Management at the hotel – the Grand Hyatt Singapore – said they had cleaned extensively and were monitoring staff and guests for infection but did not know “how, where or when” conference attendees were infected. The lion dancers, who posted photos of the event on Facebook, said they were virus free.

“Everyone assumes it was a delegate but it could have been a cleaner, it could have been a waiter,” said Paul Tambyah, an infectious diseases expert at National University Singapore. He added it was “very important” to find “patient zero” to establish other possible “chains of transmission”.

But time may be running out.

Singapore health ministry’s Kenneth Mak said the government will continue to try and identify the initial carrier until the outbreak ends, but as days pass it will get harder.

“We might never be able to tell who that first patient is,” Mak said.

Meanwhile, the fallout from the conference continues to sow trepidation weeks after the event and thousands of miles away.

Reuters visited Servomex’s offices in the suburbs of South Korea’s capital, Seoul. It was closed and dark inside, and a building guard told Reuters employees were working from home.

A notice posted by building management stated a coronavirus patient had entered the complex, while several young women could be overheard in a nearby elevator discussing whether it had been used by the infected person.

“Do you think the patient would have gotten on this elevator or the other one?” one said.

(Reporting by John Geddie, Joe Brock and Keith Zhai in Singapore, Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith in Seoul, Kate Holton in London, and Joseph Sipalan in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Health officials confirm first U.S. case of China coronavirus, expand screening

By Julie Steenhuysen

(Reuters) – A U.S. resident who recently traveled to China has been diagnosed with the newly identified coronavirus that has sickened more than 300 people and killed at least six in China, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.

The U.S. patient is responding well to treatment and was not severely ill, CDC and Washington State health officials said.

CDC officials said the agency is preparing for more U.S. cases of the coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and raised its travel alert for Wuhan to a level 2, calling for enhanced precautions. Under that alert level, the CDC recommends travelers to Wuhan should avoid contact with sick people, animals or animal markets.

“We do expect additional cases in the United States and globally,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a CDC respiratory diseases expert said on a conference call with reporters.

CDC officials said they have begun tracking down individuals who came in contact with the patient to check them for symptoms.

Last week, the CDC began screening travelers from China at U.S. airports in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. On Tuesday, the agency said it will expand screening for the virus to the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta and O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

Besides the United States, cases outside of China have been reported in South Korea, Thailand and Japan.

“I don’t think looking at what we know so far that this it on the scale of SARS and MERS, the two most significant coronavirus outbreaks that we know from history,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said in a phone interview.

“It is early days in this outbreak and we don’t have a good handle on the severity of illness,” Adalja added.

On the call, CDC officials said they have screened more than 1,200 passengers since Jan. 17. None of them have been sent on for additional testing.

The U.S. traveler from Washington state had returned on Jan. 15, arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is not on the U.S. list for enhanced screening.

The patient sought care at a medical facility in Everett, Washington, and was treated for the illness. Based on his travel history and symptoms, healthcare professionals suspected the new coronavirus.

Specimens were taken from the patient and sent to the CDC for testing. The agency said it has developed a new test that allowed it to identify the presence of the virus in a traveler.

Washington state health officials said they are taking steps to protect the public and continue to believe the risk is low. Healthcare personnel are taking precautions to prevent the infection from spreading to hospital staff, they added.

As is often the case, preliminary information suggests older adults with underlying health conditions may be at increased risk of severe disease, CDC’s Messonnier said.

The agency is working with health officials in China and globally to better understand the virus and any potential treatments.

Messonnier confirmed that the CDC is working with the U.S. National Institutes of Health to develop diagnostics and a vaccine. U.S. officials have said it could take at least a year of testing before any vaccine could be used on the public.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru and Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Oil held around its lowest in a month

A worker grabs a nozzle at a petrol station in Tehran, Iran

By Amanda Cooper

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil held around its lowest in a month on Monday as investors ditched some of their bullish bets on another price rise and the chances that top exporters will agree to rein in overproduction appeared to fade.

Iran will continue increasing oil production and exports until it reaches the market position it enjoyed before the imposition of sanctions, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh was quoted as saying by the semi-official Mehr news agency.

Saudi Arabia, which spearheaded an initial proposal in February for producers to limit output, said last week that it would not join any effort to do so unless Iran were on board, while Russia reported its highest oil production in 30 years.

This has cast doubt on the ability of the world’s largest exporters to reach an when they meet in Doha this month to discuss how to align global supply and demand.

Hedge funds last week cut their bullish holdings of crude oil futures for the first time in six weeks. [CFTC/]

Brent crude futures were 14 cents higher at $38.81 a barrel by 1232 GMT, still close to their lowest for a month but 40 percent above their in mid-February level.

U.S. crude futures were 22 cents higher at $37.01.

“It’s not very strange to see a wave of profit-taking and some unwinding of long positions, and some people even saying they could reposition for a move towards lower prices,” said ABN Amro’s chief energy economist, Hans van Cleef.

“That’s part of a normal cycle that I think can continue this week. We might see $36 or $37 … Prices are coming down because of speculation Saudi Arabia will not join (the freeze deal) and that’s probably what we’ll see over the next three weeks – more speculation and more verbal intervention.”

Oil prices have fallen by more than 65 percent since mid-2014, when booming U.S. shale oil output and supply from within and outside OPEC created one of the largest global surpluses of crude in modern times.

Some analysts believe that even freezing production around record highs will help to reduce the surplus, given that demand is expected to continue to grow this year.

“Most of the negative news is in the price and for oil prices to weaken materially, something big would have to happen,” Gain Capital analyst Fawad Razaqzada said in a note.

U.S. production is proving more resilient to low oil prices than many expected, despite reduced drilling for new reserves as well as a jump in bankruptcies. [RIG/U]

“Given this backdrop, and the potential for an oil-freeze deal this month, the global supply-demand imbalance is likely to fade as we progress towards the latter part of this year,” Razaqzada added.

(Additional reporting by Henning Gloystein in Singapore; Editing by Dale Hudson and David Goodman)