With over a million coronavirus cases, economic freefall looms

By Cate Cadell and Lisa Shumaker

BEIJING/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Global cases of the new coronavirus have shot past 1 million with more than 53,000 fatalities, a Reuters tally showed on Friday, as death tolls soared in the United States and western Europe while the world economy nosedived.

In the space of just 24 hours, 6,095 infected people died – nearly twice the total number of deaths in China, where the virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, originated.

Atop the grim tally of officially reported data are Italy, with 13,915 deaths, and Spain, with 10,935. But the United States is becoming the new epicentre, with 243,635 cases – by far the most of any nation – and 5,887 deaths.

In China, where draconian containment measures stabilised the epidemic, coronavirus “martyrs” will be mourned on Saturday with a three-minute silence.

Though the official figures are shocking enough, health experts and even some governments acknowledge they do not capture the full spread. The virus mostly goes undetected in people with minor symptoms or none at all.

With airlines largely grounded, businesses closed, layoffs mounting and millions of people under lockdown, the economic fallout is set to be worse than the 2008 financial crisis.

Rather, comparisons are being drawn with such traumatic periods as World War Two or the 1930s global Depression.

ECONOMIES IN FREEFALL

Morgan Stanley predicted that the U.S. economy, the world’s biggest, would shrink 5.5% this year, the steepest drop since 1946, despite an unprecedented aid package. An eye-watering 38% contraction is predicted for the second quarter.

The bank said Britain was heading for a slump that could be worse in the short term than the 1930s.

Global stocks slipped, but then recovered as Wall Street headed into positive territory in morning trade.

Morgues and hospitals in New York City were struggling to treat or even bury victims of the virus, and state governor Andrew Cuomo predicted similar misery for the rest of the country.

Staff at one medical centre in Brooklyn were seen disposing of gowns and caps in a sidewalk trash can after loading bodies into a refrigerated truck.

After initially playing down the crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was set to advise Americans to wear masks if venturing out.

Spain and Italy were also counting their daily dead, but prayed they were plateauing as data at least showed a slowdown in daily increases.

Some 900,000 Spanish workers have lost their jobs. Double that number have done so in Turkey, the opposition said.

Britain, accused by the opposition of being slow to respond to the threat of the virus, unveiled a hospital installed in an exhibition centre in under two weeks to provide thousands of extra beds, and promised a tenfold increase in testing.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s extended self-isolation, after testing positive, was a reminder of the risk.

In a video message from Downing Street, he said he still had fever.

In France, the government did something that was shunned even in wartime, cancelling the end-of-high-school “baccalaureat” exam for the first time since its inception in 1808 under Napoleon Bonaparte.

DISASTER FOR DEVELOPING WORLD

While prosperous nations reel, there are fears of potentially far worse impact in places already struggling with poverty, insecurity and weak health systems.

In Iraq, three doctors and two officials said there were thousands of cases, many times more than publicly reported.

In India, many poor labourers were desperate, and hungry, after losing jobs in a lockdown ordered at four hours’ notice by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“I’m very sure that he works only for the big people and not for a man like me,” said former Modi supporter Ravi Prasad Gupta, laid off from a pipe plant.

Aware that religious gatherings have in some parts aided the virus’s spread, both Pakistan and Bangladesh sought to stop people going to mosques for Friday prayers, while Saudi Arabia imposed a curfew in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Though there was little cause for cheer anywhere, one positive offshoot of the crisis has been a massive drop in atmospheric pollution. One expert said carbon dioxide emissions could fall this year by the largest amount since World War Two.

New Google data from mobile phones in 131 countries showed huge changes in human behaviour as people are told to stay home and businesses shut. For example, in Italy and Spain, visits to retail and recreation locations including restaurants and cinemas plunged 94% in March.

But authorities are still nervous about public criticism in many places, not only authoritarian states.

The U.S. Navy relieved the captain of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt of his command on Thursday, punishing him for the leak of a scathing letter to superiors seeking stronger measures to a curb a coronavirus on board.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Howard Goller and Kevin Liffey)

How many Americans have coronavirus? New Reuters poll might offer a hint

By Maurice Tamman

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The official count of coronavirus infections in the United States sits at about 70,000 cases, but a chronic shortage of tests means only a fraction of the people infected are being counted. So how can we know how many Americans actually might have the disease?

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in the past several days could offer what one behavioral health expert called a “fascinating” hint of the possible numbers.

In the nationwide poll, 2.3% of Americans surveyed said they’ve been diagnosed with the coronavirus, a percentage that could translate to several million people.

Of course, it’s impossible to know if the answers are a result of misinformed self-diagnoses, untested professional diagnoses or test-confirmed infections. But Carnegie Mellon University professor Baruch Fischhoff, who studies risk perception and analysis, said that the poll results shouldn’t be viewed as merely a collective neurotic reaction to the pandemic.

Given the shortage of coronavirus test kits, it may well be a broadly accurate estimate of the extent of the infection across the United States, he said. “It may be the best available data,” he said.

A further 2.4% of those polled said they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. And in an illustration of the degrees of separation with the deadly virus, a further 2.6% said they knew someone who has been in close contact with a person who has tested positive.

The poll, which surveyed 4,428 adults between March 18 and 24, shows a dramatic increase in those saying they have tested positive for the virus from a similar poll conducted just a few days earlier. In the Reuters/Ipsos poll of 1,115 Americans conducted March 16 and 17, about 1% said they were infected.

The latest poll also suggests that Latinos are far more likely to come in contact with people who may be infected than whites; the same appears true for younger people compared to older Americans. The disease appears to be concentrated in the Northeast, according to the poll, but the survey also suggests it’s widespread throughout the country.

David Cates, director of behavioral health at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, was intrigued by the results.

“Going back to that concept of the wisdom of crowds, you’re getting a response that may actually be closer to reality than confirmed testing,” he said. “And that is just absolutely fascinating.”

But he said the conflicting information from officials and in the media, as well as the shortage of testing, may also explain some of the response to the poll.

“They are listening to the news and thinking, ‘Yeah, you know, that’s what my father has, and that’s what I have,'” he said. “And this is probably what’s going on with the neighbor.”

Still, the poll results may fill some gaps in knowledge in the face of limited testing.

For example, Fischhoff said, on March 15, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine estimated there were about 100,000 infections in his state, which represents about 1% of the state’s population, despite there only being a handful of confirmed cases at the time. The governor’s office declined to comment on the estimate.

“You know, with the doubling rate in the country, it’s not implausible that the infected rate was 1% and now it’s 2.3%,” he said.

He commented on another finding in the poll, the difference in proximity between rural and urban areas. In rural communities, according to the poll, about 9% of people said they were either infected; had contact with someone infected; or knew someone infected in their extended social network. In denser urban areas, that rate rose to 13%.

“As you would expect, as you’ve got greater density, you’d expect a higher rate,” he said.

Northwestern University economics professor Charles Manski said he was gratified to see that older Americans may have less exposure to infected people than other age groups. The disease poses a particular risk for the elderly.

Only 6% of Americans 55 and over said they were either infected; had contact with someone infected; or knew someone infected in their extended social network, the poll showed. That compares to 19% for adults under 35.

He said older people tend to have smaller social circles, which might explain part of the results, but he also thinks older Americans are being more careful than their younger counterparts.

Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland, said the results also illustrate the risk to some ethnic communities as the broader economy shrinks and many retreat into their homes.

High-risk, low-paying jobs that have not been shut down – such as hospital custodial workers, farm laborers, delivery drivers and warehouse workers – tend to have a high percentage of minority workers.

The poll shows that about 16% of Latinos said they were either infected; had contact with someone infected; or knew someone infected in their extended social network, compared to about 9% for whites.

She also noted that the poll is a rare example of a subject that doesn’t have a massive partisan divide: About 14% of Democrats said they are infected or know of someone infected, compared to about 10% of Republicans.

(Reporting by Maurice Tamman; editing by Kari Howard)

Americans heed warning to wash hands often to control coronavirus, Reuters/Ipsos poll finds

By Gabriella Borter and Chris Kahn

(Reuters) – Americans appear to be heeding the warning of health experts to wash their hands more frequently and use disinfectant wipes to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, according to a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll released on Wednesday.

As Covid-19 spreads across the country, nearly half of all Americans say they have started more rigorously cleaning themselves and surfaces they touch to avoid contracting the virus, according to the March 2-3 national poll.

It found that some 42% of respondents were washing their hands and using disinfectant more than usual, and 18% said they have avoided physical contact with others more often.

The rise in caution was recorded days after the virus caused its first U.S. fatality in Washington state and began spreading from person to person on the West Coast.

Some 28% of Americans believe the coronavirus poses an “imminent threat” in the country, according to the survey, a slight increase from the 22% who said they considered the seasonal flu to have the same level of threat.

As few as 9% of the respondents said the coronavirus has had an impact on their work or business, including declining sales, postponed conferences or meetings and problems with supply chains.

Another 84% said it has had no impact, and 7% said they do not know.

The disease, which first surfaced in China in December, has now infected more than 100 people in the United States and killed at least nine. Health experts say it spreads primarily through tiny droplets coughed or sneezed from an infected person and then inhaled by another. Vigilant hygiene can prevent transmission, they say.

On its website, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control lists frequent handwashing for at least 20 seconds and disinfection of surfaces with an alcohol-based cleaner as methods of prevention. Scientists have yet to develop a vaccine to prevent the disease.

Coronavirus can survive on surfaces, such as handrails and door knobs, for “a very long period of time” and be picked up by hand that way, though the virus is “very susceptible” to cleaning products, Dr. Christopher Braden, deputy director of the emerging and zoonotic infectious disease center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on Friday.

Health officials also recommend that people avoid touching their face, eyes or mouth, and stay home from work if they feel ill.

The general public’s risk of exposure remains low, the CDC says, but that risk is elevated for healthcare workers and people who live in communities where spread is occurring, such as in Washington and California.

The number of coronavirus cases diagnosed in Washington state rose on Tuesday to 27, including nine deaths in the largest U.S. outbreak to emerge from local transmission. That was up from 18 cases and six deaths a day earlier, state health authorities reported.

Only a small minority of Americans say they have pursued more deliberate ways of avoiding the virus, according to the survey. As few as 5% said they are working from home, 6% said they have canceled or altered travel plans and 8% said they have purchased surgical masks.

Click here for the poll results

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Dan Grebler)

Facebook starts fact-checking partnership with Reuters

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc said on Wednesday it has reached an agreement with news agency Reuters, a unit of Thomson Reuters Corp, to fact-check content posted on the social media platform and its photo-sharing app Instagram.

Under pressure to remove fake news on its platform ahead of the U.S. presidential elections, Facebook started a U.S. pilot program in December to detect misinformation faster.

The move came after U.S. intelligence agencies said that social media platforms were used in a Russian cyber-influence campaign aimed at interfering in the 2016 U.S. election – a claim Moscow has denied.

A newly created unit at Reuters will fact-check user-generated photos, videos, headlines and other content for Facebook’s U.S. audience in both English and Spanish, the news agency said in a statement. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Facebook works with seven other fact-checking partners in the United States, including Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

(Reporting by Supantha Mukherjee in Bengaluru; editing by Edward Tobin)

More drugmakers hike U.S. prices as new year begins

By Michael Erman

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Drugmakers including Bristol-Myers Squibb Co, Gilead Sciences Inc, and Biogen Inc hiked U.S. list prices on more than 50 drugs on Wednesday, bringing total New Year’s Day drug price increases to more than 250, according to data analyzed by healthcare research firm 3 Axis Advisors.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that drugmakers including Pfizer Inc, GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Sanofi SA were planning to increase prices on more than 200 drugs in the United States on Jan. 1.

Nearly all of the price increases are below 10% and the median price increase is around 5%, according to 3 Axis.

More early year price increases could still be announced.

Soaring U.S. prescription drug prices are expected to again be a central issue in the presidential election. President Donald Trump, who made bringing them down a core pledge of his 2016 campaign, is running for re-election in 2020.

Many branded drugmakers have pledged to keep their U.S. list price increases below 10% a year, under pressure from politicians and patients.

The United States, which leaves drug pricing to market competition, has higher prices than in other countries where governments directly or indirectly control the costs, making it the world’s most lucrative market for manufacturers.

Drugmakers often negotiate rebates on their list prices in exchange for favorable treatment from healthcare payers. As a result, health insurers and patients rarely pay the full list price of a drug.

Bristol-Myers said in a statement it will not raise list prices on its drugs by more than 6% this year.

The drugmaker raised the price on 10 drugs on Wednesday, including 1.5% price hikes on cancer immunotherapies Opdivo and Yervoy and a 6% increase on its blood thinner Eliquis, all of which bring in billions of dollars in revenue annually.

It also raised the price on Celgene’s flagship multiple myeloma drug, Revlimid, 6%. Bristol acquired rival Celgene in a $74 billion deal last year.

Gilead raised prices on more than 15 drugs including HIV treatments Biktarvy and Truvada less than 5%, according to 3 Axis.

Biogen price increases included a 6% price hike on multiple sclerosis treatment Tecfidera, according to 3 Axis.

Gilead and Biogen could not be immediately reached for comment.

3 Axis advises pharmacy industry groups on identifying inefficiencies in the U.S. drug supply chain and has provided consulting work to hedge fund billionaire John Arnold, a prominent critic of high drug prices.

(Reporting by Michael Erman; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Nine months after Lobo showed us an Amazon ambush site, he was killed in one

Nine months after Lobo showed us an Amazon ambush site, he was killed in one
By Max Baring

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Paulo Paulino Guajajara, also known as Lobo or “wolf”, was killed in an attack on Nov. 1, the latest fatality in an escalating battle between illegal loggers and indigenous tribes in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

Lobo was part of a group called “Guardians of the Forest” that the Thomson Reuters Foundation met on a reporting and filming trip to the Araribóia reservation in northeastern Maranhao state in January this year, joining them on a patrol.

Araribóia is an island of forest that has become separated from the ever-shrinking mass that is the Amazon rainforest.

This constitutionally protected indigenous land is home to the Awá Guajá, known as Brazil’s most vulnerable uncontacted tribe, whose voluntary isolation is defended by the Guajajara, especially the Guajajara brigade of “Guardians of the Forest”.

Lobo and about 120 others make up the group that was set up in 2012 and works alongside other indigenous groups of “Guardians” that have emerged over the past decade in Brazil in response to ever increasing incursions by illegal loggers.

For months we had been looking for an opportunity to join the guardians on patrol in what has become a deadly clash.

Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council found 135 indigenous people were murdered in 2018, up almost 23% from 2017, with clashes increasing since President Jair Bolsonaro vowed this year to open up indigenous lands to economic development.

Finally, in January this year we set out, joining Lobo and his brigade of guardians in a village used as a base from which to launch patrols inside the Araribóia reserve.

UNDER COVER OF DARKNESS

We spent a day filming in the village and interviewing guardians and some of their families before setting out on patrol. This included Lobo, aged about 27 with one son.

Then the time came. Their motorbike-riding scout returned with news of illegal loggers setting up a new camp and preparations started, with the guardians painting their faces with jenipapo for camoflauge and protection from mother nature.

That night we travelled on dirt tracks and waited at the entrance to the Araribóia protected area to see if we could intercept any loggers moving their illegal hauls under cover of darkness.

Along the way we had two tense encounters with indigenous Guajarara whom the Guardians accused of selling out their area of Araribóia to illegal loggers.

It became evident that while most of the struggles are between the indigenous people and outsiders there is also a significant conflict developing within indigenous groups themselves, divided over what should happen to the rainforest.

It took two more days for us to arrive at a small logging camp deep where the group set fire to the sawn timber lying around the camp being prepared to be hauled out of the reserve.

They burned down the camp before we continued patrolling along the loggers’ trail through the already thinned-out forest on the edge of the reserve but there was no sign of the loggers.

Since the group started in 2012 at least three Guajajara guardians have been killed in conflicts with illegal loggers. Over that time the guardians have burned down about 200 illegal logging camps, according to Olimpio Guajajara, the leader of this brigade.

It was clear throughout the operation that the guardians felt they had no choice but to protect their land, feeling abandoned by the authorities while well aware of the risks.

Lobo spoke of the death threats that he already had from a man he described as a loggers’ “hired gun”.

He also spoke of a Guardian named Alfonso who had been killed in a conflict with loggers and complained that the police often sided with the illegal loggers, not the indigenous “Guardians of the Forest”, when conflicts arose.

In one of the last scenes to be cut during the editing of the documentary “Guarding the Forest”, Lobo comes across a slight, wooden structure in the bush next to the trail.

He explains to camera that this was an ambush structure where loggers lie in wait for the guardians to launch surprise attacks at close quarters.

“This is a trap for the guardians who pass here. He’ll stay seated there waiting for the guardians to pass so he can shoot,” Lobo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

On Nov. 1 came the news of Lobo’s death. Media India, a Brazilian indigenous media network, reported that he was shot in the face at close range while collecting water from a lake, in an attack near the area of Araribóia where we filmed him in February.

Indigenous leader Laercio Guajajara, also in our film, was seriously injured in the attack and was now recovering in hiding. He has pledged to continue fighting against illegal logging.

One of the loggers was also reportedly killed in the incident now being investigated by federal and state police.

(Reporting by Max Baring, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Most Americans expect next mass shooting to happen in next three months: Reuters/Ipsos poll

Mourners taking part in a vigil at El Paso High School after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, U.S. August 3, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – Nearly half of all Americans expect another mass shooting will happen soon in the United States, according to a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll released on Friday, as the nation reels from rampages in California, Texas and Ohio.

The Aug. 7-8 survey found that 78% of Americans said it was likely that such an attack would take place in the next three months, including 49% who said one was “highly likely.” Another 10% said a mass shooting was unlikely in three months and the rest said they did not know.

The poll was conducted after two mass shootings earlier in August in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and a third in Gilroy, California, last month that left 36 people dead. The attacks have rattled the country and renewed calls for tougher gun laws.

“You are on guard because you never know when it’s going to happen and where,” said Suzanne Fink, 59, a Republican from Troutman, North Carolina. “It has been happening much too often and it’s like a copycat effect.”

There is no set definition of a mass shooting, but the nonprofit organization Gun Violence Archive has tallied more than 250 such incidents so far this year alone – for an average of more than one a day – a widely cited figure that counts events in which four or more people were either shot and killed or shot and wounded.

Following the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, Democrats, including several 2020 presidential candidates criticized Republican President Donald Trump for rhetoric they labeled as racist and hard-line immigration polices, saying they stoked violence.

Former Texas congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke on Wednesday called the shooting in El Paso “an act of terror inspired by your racism” in response to a tweet by Trump.

The president, who condemned “sinister ideologies” and hate in a televised speech on Monday, has expressed support for tightening background checks for gun purchases.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday he would not call the Senate back early to consider new gun legislation, rejecting a plea from more than 200 U.S. mayors, including two whose cities endured mass shootings last weekend.

According to the poll, 69% of U.S. adults want “strong” or “moderate” restrictions placed on firearms.

The poll also found that half of all Americans, including two-thirds of Democrats and a third of Republicans, believe that “the way people talk about immigration encourages acts of violence.”

A majority of U.S. adults considers “random acts of violence,” including mass shootings, to be the biggest threat to their safety, while one in four pointed to politically or religiously motivated domestic terrorism as the biggest safety threat. About one in six cited foreign terrorism.

People cited mental health, racism and bigotry and easy access to firearms as the top three causes of mass shootings in the United States, while only about one in six – and one in four Republicans – said in the poll that video games were to blame.

In his speech on Monday, Trump mentioned video games and mental illness as factors in mass shootings. Research studies have shown little or no link between violent video games and shootings.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online in English throughout the United States. It gathered responses from 1,116 adults and has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani; Editing by Chris Kahn and Jonathan Oatis)

Backstory: Reporting from the dark in Venezuela

Locals gather at a street food cart during a blackout in Caracas, March 29. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

(Reuters) – Backstory is a series of reports showing how Reuters journalists work and the standards under which they operate.

Two waves of major electricity outages plunged Venezuela into darkness last month, putting even more strain on a nation struggling with food shortages and hyperinflation.

With a diesel-powered generator in their Caracas bureau, Reuters staff are better-placed than most Venezuelans to cope with the blackouts.

But reporting from a darkened city and making sure all journalists and support personnel are safe present multiple obstacles.

“Everything will go down for a minute or two, the TVs and screens will turn off, then maybe a minute later, the power generator will kick in,” said Brian Ellsworth, Reuters senior correspondent in Caracas.

That is when the problems start.

No electricity means pumps do not work, leading to shortages of clean water. Cell networks cannot operate, meaning mobile phones are useless. Bank networks go down. Transport is unpredictable.

“At first, we weren’t totally prepared for it,” said Ellsworth, who has come to accept short outages as normal after 15 years reporting in the country’s capital.

Once it was clear that March’s first blackout would be longer than usual, the bureau immediately stocked up on water and bought food for the team as payment systems collapsed.

Only the bureau has a generator, not the building it is housed in, which makes getting into the office more complicated. To make it easier, a staff member slept in the newsroom most evenings, opening the emergency staircase from the inside so reporters could start work early the next day.

Gathering the news gets more difficult to coordinate.

“Cell reception comes in and out. We can make calls over WhatsApp but we can’t call anyone in the country because no one has a functioning cell line,” Ellsworth said. “We have to rely on short-wave radios which function to about 3 km (1.9 miles), but that can be really fuzzy.”

UNCERTAINTY CLOUDS EVERYTHING

With phones unusable, Venezuelans are cut off from one another and from sources of news and social media.

Ellsworth reported on a rally in eastern Caracas to protest President Nicolas Maduro’s handling of the nation’s crisis.

“How did you know about the rally?” he asked one protester. The answer: she did not. She was looking for her mother. “When I got to her building, they told me she was here, so that’s why I came.”

Hospitals cannot perform some vital functions without electricity. Already scarce food starts to spoil. Schools are closed during power outages, which means looking after children becomes an added burden.

“All of that affects us as a bureau because people have to take care of their own homes,” Ellsworth said. “We try to make sure that all those folks have what they need,” he said.

During busy news periods, the Reuters team in Caracas can include as many as 25 people, from reporters, photographers and television staff to security, cleaning and transport crews. The bureau also tries to provide meals for the building’s security guards who are not formally linked to the company.

“They have the same problems, they are stuck here for 24 hours, and when they leave here they don’t know how they are going to get home, if they will have power at home. They don’t have a way to communicate with their families,” said Ellsworth.

“Reuters needs to look out for people that are helping us maintain the operation.”

Maduro and ruling Socialist Party officials have offered a wide range of explanations for the blackouts, including electromagnetic sabotage by the United States and opposition-linked snipers firing on the country’s main hydroelectric dam.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as the country’s head of state, says it is the result of a decade of corruption and mismanagement.

As Ellsworth walks up seven flights of stairs to his family’s apartment to light candles in the darkness, he reflects on the state of uncertainty he and 2 million other inhabitants of Caracas now face as a matter of course.

“They don’t give clear answers as to when power is going to come back on, people don’t really believe them when they say the power’s about to come back on, and when it is back, people don’t really believe it will stay back on,” he said. “The uncertainty starts to cloud everything.”

(Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Howard Goller)

Capturing 24 hours in Gaza, one hour at a time

Locals walk past graffiti in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. Political graffiti covers walls throughout Gaza. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

GAZA CITY (Reuters) – In the build-up to the one-year anniversary of the Gaza border protests that opened up a deadly new front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Reuters photographer Dylan Martinez visited Gaza for the first time.

As someone who had never set eyes on Gaza, his assignment was to use those unfamiliar eyes to record life beyond the daily drumbeat of violence in the blockaded Palestinian territory.

The mood has become more tense in recent weeks as the March 30 anniversary nears, with trails of Palestinian rockets and Israeli missiles again appearing in the skies above.

Martinez did not know what to expect after he crossed through Israel’s fortified checkpoint and past a long caged walkway and parallel road leading to a dilapidated Palestinian checkpoint at the other end.

Bullet and shrapnel holes cover a wall as children fly kites in Gaza City, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Bullet and shrapnel holes cover a wall as children fly kites in Gaza City, February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

“We have a great team of photographers and journalists in Gaza whose main task, really, is to photograph the protest, the clashes between Israel and Gaza,” said Martinez, 49, a 28-year Reuters veteran who has covered Europe, Asia and the Americas and is currently based in London.

“My remit, I think, was to do pretty much anything but that. Because everyone has seen that side of Gaza.”

Gaza is a 139-square-mile (360-square-kilometre) coastal strip situated between Tel Aviv and Sinai and is home to around two million Palestinians, two thirds of them refugees.

It has been governed by the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas since shortly after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005.

With its armed brigades and thousands of police and security men on the streets, Hamas controls Gaza’s interior as tightly as Israeli soldiers, gunboats and warplanes control most of Gaza’s perimeter, with Egyptian walls and watchtowers along the eight-mile southern border.

Accompanied by a Reuters assistant photographer from Gaza City, Martinez traveled the strip, photographing it at every hour of the day and night over a 10-day period.

Children play a game of "Arabs and Jews" outside a school in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Children play a game of “Arabs and Jews” outside a school in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

One of the most powerful scenes was a patch of wasteland between a school and a mosque where children were playing.

“These kids were burning some cardboard, they had trenches, they were throwing sandballs so they weren’t hurting each other. And I said, ‘Oh, what are you guys doing?’ and they said, ‘Oh, we are playing Jews and Arabs.'” The image, he said, “will probably stay with me forever”.

SUNSETS AND RUBBISH

Parts of Gaza, to his surprise, resembled an underdeveloped version of California’s famed Venice Beach – with glorious Mediterranean sunsets, bathers and skateboarders, but often with crumbling buildings and rubbish heaps as part of the backdrop.

Car wrecks are seen at a garage in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. This particular garage has cars dating back to the 1950s, including an old Opel. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Car wrecks are seen at a garage in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. This particular garage has cars dating back to the 1950s, including an old Opel. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

In vehicle scrapyards in the north, he saw stacks of discarded cars. With 53 percent of Gazans living in poverty, according to a United Nations report in December, valuable items such as cars are cannibalized for every accessory.

The same “use everything” dynamic could be seen at the harbor, where even the smallest fish discarded from a catch were gathered to be sold to poorer families.

On Friday, while youths were protesting at the Gaza-Israel border, Martinez went to the beach to see what was going on.

“I really understood that not 2 million people had gone to the border to clash with the Israelis. What else were they doing?” he said.

“I found a bunch of skaters there with, I don’t know, I think they had one or two boards between them, some pretty ropey roller blades…They were just busy filming themselves trying to do flips, trying to do tricks, things like that.”

After the sun goes down and the streets empty, pool halls and bakeries continue to operate through the darkness imposed by night, and by Gaza’s constant power cuts.

Martinez was warned many times by officials and bystanders on the street, in a more cautionary than menacing manner, not to photograph Hamas checkpoints and military installations.

Children make their way through the streets as they head to school in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Children make their way through the streets as they head to school in Gaza City, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Often, he did not realize what the buildings were because their exteriors gave no sign of what might have been within. Otherwise, Martinez encountered few problems.

“There’s a real sense of being enclosed. You can stand on the beach looking out toward the horizon and see this fantastic sun and crystal blue waters, a sense (that) you are part of the world and there is everything around you,” he said.

“You look to the right, you turn one way, and there is Israel and you can go down this road but in a car it was taking 20 minutes. You look the other way, there is Egypt. You go down the road there, there’s a blockade, you can’t go any further.

“You look inland, and there in the background as well is the horizon, is Israel. And you can’t go that way.”

“So there is always a feeling you can only go so far one way. And the other way. I did feel it. There is a sort of feeling of enclosure.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. Army vows to fix ‘broken’ housing at Fort Meade in wake of Reuters report

FILE PHOTO: Water damage to the doorway of a Corvias-managed military housing unit is pictured in Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

By Joshua Schneyer

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The commander of one of the largest Army bases in the United States promised residents to fix a broken housing system in which maintenance lapses by a private landlord left military families in homes with health and safety hazards.

The garrison commander at Maryland’s Fort Meade made the remarks in meetings with residents this month in response to a Reuters report in December that detailed the problems, which ranged from mold and rodent infestations to flooding, crumbling roofs and ceiling collapses. Many tenants accused the closely held civilian company that runs most housing at Fort Meade, Rhode Island’s Corvias Group, of routinely failing to make repairs.

Based on the Reuters articles, we failed you. I failed you, Colonel Erich C. Spragg, Meade’s garrison commander, told families at a January 11 town hall meeting.

“Why are we here tonight? I’ll tell you why: because this is broken, Spragg said of the Meade housing system, operated by a public-private venture between the Army and Corvias. I’ve got to figure out where it’s broken, and we have to fix it.&rdq

Corvias staff also spoke at the meetings, acknowledging lapses and pledging improvements, according to audio recordings that were shared with Reuters.

Trust is hard to earn back, and we’re going to do what we can to earn that back, JC Calder, Corvias’s operations director at Meade, told residents.

Meade and Corvias promised to overhaul the system for placing repair requests to more swiftly complete fixes. The garrison commander is convening resident focus groups to identify housing lapses.

Owned by real estate developer John Picerne, Corvias operates more than 26,000 family homes across 13 U.S. Army and Air Force bases under the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. It is slated to earn more than $1 billion in fees over 50-year contracts, Reuters found.

Asked about the new promises to Meade residents, Corvias spokeswoman Kelly Douglas said in a statement: Our core mission at Corvias is clear: put service members and their families first. We can do better and will do better, in addressing any resident issues.

She said the company already has a high rate of completing work orders, but to respond to resident issues more quickly, is adding additional maintenance and service staff.

In a statement Wednesday, the Army said it is committed to providing a safe and secure environment on our installations, and said it recently completed visual inspections of 10 percent of family housing units nationwide with children ages six or younger.

The Army began the inspection program last year after Reuters found lead poisoning hazards on several bases.

The results, the Army said, will inform our long-term plan to address issues across the force.

Fort Meade is the site of a major U.S. Army contingent and home to the secretive National Security Agency. Corvias operates around 3,000 family homes on the base.

Last month, Reuters detailed housing concerns at Fort Meade and two other bases where Corvias operates, North Carolina’s Fort Bragg and Louisiana’s Fort Polk, where a subsequent online petition to hold Corvias accountable has gained 5,000 signatures. Corvias said it is reviewing its service request system to better address resident concerns at all bases where it operates.

At the two Meade town hall sessions last week, some families described mold sickening their children, unexplained charges from their landlord, days without heat, and problems that forced them to move in temporarily with neighbors.

Corvias is among more than a dozen private real estate firms housing service families on U.S. bases under the two-decade-old privatization program.

Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, this month told a local TV station he would press for Senate hearings to explore base housing conditions across the country.

Before Corvias took over Fort Bragg housing in 2003, Reed helped make introductions for Picerne at the Army post and credited his work serving military families. After the Reuters report, Reed said the Senate should review operations of all contractors, including Corvias.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)