The Early Edition: March 24, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.  

CORONAVIRUS

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus yesterday warned that the Covid-19 global pandemic was clearly “accelerating,” with more than 380,000 cases now confirmed and infections reported from nearly every country. It took 67 days from the first reported coronavirus case to reach 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000, and just four days for the third 100,000. But Tedros said it was still possible to change the trajectory of the pandemic by going on the attack, and urged countries to adopt rigorous testing and contact-tracing strategies. Reuters reporting.

A spokesperson for the W.H.O. allowed today for the possibility that the United States could become the new epicenter, noting over the last 24 hours, 85 percent of new cases were from Europe and the United States — and of those, 40 percent were from America. Reuters reporting.

President Trump said yesterday he is considering how to restart the U.S. economy when a 15-day period of social distancing ends next week, even as he said the government also would continue fighting the viral spread. “America will again and soon be open for business,” Trump told a White House coronavirus news conference. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” the president said, suggesting that the devastating economic cost of social isolation could harm the country more than deaths from the virus. Jim Tankersley, Maggie Haberman and Roni Caryn Rabin report for the New York Times.

“It is way too early to even consider rolling back any guidelines,” said Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and former top Obama administration public health official. “With cases and deaths rising by the day, the country must double down, not lighten up, on social distancing and related measures.” Other public health leaders have also warned that the virus could make a comeback and that the fallout will be more severe if the White House declares triumph now, only to have the virus resurface weeks or months from now. Adam Cancryn and Nancy. Cook report for POLITICO.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that they are “very close” to a bipartisan deal on a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus economic relief package, raising the prospect of a Senate vote on the legislation as early as today. John Bresnahan, Marianne Levine and Sarah Ferris report for POLITICO.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her own legislative counterproposal yesterday, offering some distinct differences to the G.O.P. version in the Senate. A look at how the House Democrats’ package compares to the Senate’s is provided by Caitlin Emma and Jennifer Scholtes at POLITICO.

The Defense Department is preparing to deploy field hospitals to New York City and Seattle later this week, the Pentagon announced yesterday, as its top civilian and military leaders acknowledged for the first time that the coronavirus pandemic could affect military readiness. U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the armed forces had been preparing administratively since Feb. 1 for the prospect of providing the U.S. government assistance in a pandemic-like scenario. But the field hospitals — to be set up in the two U.S. cities hardest hit by the pandemic — were the latest in a series of deployment announcements that illustrate how the military has shifted from planning to the execution of an expanding support role to the U.S. government’s domestic coronavirus response effort. Reuters reporting.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper yesterday elevated the Pentagon’s health protection level to its second-highest setting, placing further restrictions on entering the building in response to the coronavirus outbreak. “This [upgrade] limits the number of access points to the Pentagon and increases the amount of personnel who would telework, among a few other things,” Esper told reporters at a press conference in the building, adding that the latest health protection level could include “some medical screening,” including temperature testing. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

Increasingly bitter relations between Washington and Beijing are complicating efforts to get much-needed Chinese-made masks to American clinics and hospitals as American front-line medical personnel tackle the coronavirus outbreak. The Trump administration will also have to confront logistical obstacles, as a collapse over the last few days in the global business of transporting goods by air around the world will make it expensive and difficult to reach deals. Keith Bradsher and Ana Swanson report for the New York Times.

The U.S. State Department is directing its top diplomats to press governments and businesses in Eastern Europe and Eurasia to increase exports and manufacturing of crucial healthcare supplies for the United States, part of a desperate diplomatic effort to fill serious shortcomings in the U.S. medical system amid a growing death toll from the novel coronavirus. The appeal represents a stark U-turn for the United States, which has traditionally taken the lead in trying to assist other less-developed countries confront major humanitarian disasters and epidemics, and could also undermine claims by Trump, who has repeatedly asserted that the United States can handle demands for tests and medical equipment on its own, declining to fully trigger the Defense Production Act to order U.S. companies to produce these products. Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch report for Foreign Policy.

Trump yesterday said a clinical trial for potential treatment of the deadly coronavirus will start in New York soon, repeating his optimism that a combination of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin could drive away the global pandemic. “Clinical trials in New York will begin on existing drugs that may prove effective against the virus,” Trump said. “We have 10,000 units going and it will be distributed [on Tuesday].” Reuters reporting.

Trump apparently is running out of patience with Dr. Anthony Fauci’s frequent interviews and attempts to correct presidential misstatements on the new coronavirus. The president and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have offered differing views on a potential drug to treat the coronavirus and the availability of a future vaccine. Trump may be giving Fauci more leeway because of his reputation, according to multiple advisers to the president. Maggie Haberman reports for the New York Times.

The W.H.O. was unsuccessfully targeted by elite hackers earlier this month in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, part of what a senior agency official said was a more than two-fold spike in attempted cyberattacks since the public health crisis began. Reuters reporting

As governments and legislatures have clambered to adopt new working methods, including meetings by videoconference, and remote voting by ministers and parliaments, there are concerns about potentially hazardous breakdowns in checks and balances, as well as worries that authoritarian-minded leaders could cash in on public fear over the pandemic to weaken democratic institutions at a time of vulnerability. But even in capitals where such power-grabs are not likely, the declaration of states of alarm or emergency has led some officials to conclude that new mechanisms may be necessary to protect the role of lawmakers, and to preserve democratic scrutiny of the executive authorities. David M. Herszenhorn reports for POLITICO.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said yesterday that the world should declare a global ceasefire to focus on battling the coronavirus pandemic. “It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives,” Guterres said in a virtual news conference, warning that international conflicts in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Libya have overwhelmed the health care infrastructure, leaving both the victims of war and coronavirus patients in those regions especially vulnerable. Reuters reporting.

Many nations around the world, desperate to contain the pandemic, are deploying digital surveillance tools as a way to exert social control. However, dialing up surveillance to fight the pandemic now could “permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later.” It is a lesson Americans discovered after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say. Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun report for the New York Times.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday ordered tight restrictions on people’s movement to curb the spread of the coronavirus, closing all but essential shops, and warning that those who do not follow the rules will face fines. The new measures would be reviewed in three weeks, and relaxed if possible. George Parker, Sebastian Payne, Jim Pickard and Laura Hughes report for the Financial Times.

As the virus spreads from global capitals to war zones and refugee camps, U.N. relief officials and aid organizations are preparing for what they fear could be a disastrous second phase of the pandemic: intruding into the close-quarters encampments of the world’s more than 25 million refugees and another 40 million internally displaced people. Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report for Foreign Policy.

Tehran does not have the financial and medical resources to carry out an effective nationwide quarantine and other measures to curb the outbreak,” Iran scholars Narges Bajoghli and Mahsa Rouhi write at the New York Times, warning, “the Trump administration’s unwillingness to ease restrictions when Iran faces this debilitating crisis will severely hobble efforts at engagement for years to come and stain the reputation of the United States as a global leader.”

“The [coronavirus] outbreak is succeeding where Trump’s sanctions failed: throttling many of the regional trading routes the republic has become more dependent on over the past two years.” Andrew England and Najmeh Bozorgmehr explain why the republic will struggle to respond to the crisis in a piece for the Financial Times.

South Korea is one of only two nations with large outbreaks, alongside China, to flatten the curve of new infections. A look at how the country managed to contain the virus, and whether its lessons can work abroad, is provided by Max Fisher and Choe Sang-Hun at the New York Times.

Other countries must adopt Seoul’s model of mass testing before it’s too late, Devi Sridhar argues at Foreign Policy, noting, “as of March 20, South Korea’s rate of testing was 6,148 per million people, while the United Kingdom was testing only 960 people per million and the United States just 314.”

There is nothing in the Constitution barring Congress from adopting rules for remote voting, Deborah Pearlstein notes at Just Security, explaining why the United States needs to make modest changes to normal congressional procedure.

“On a day that a hundred American deaths were reported, the U.S. president made clear his intention to reopen the country for business much sooner than expected and, seemingly, sooner than medical experts believe to be safe,” David Smith writes for The Guardian, commenting, “everything we know about [Trump] suggests this impulse has been guided by Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the stock market, poll numbers, the imminent election and pure gut instinct. Not science.”

Trump’s public reversal of months of insistence that the virus would taper off to advocate for extreme distancing measures didn’t last long: during yesterday’s briefing, he repeatedly made plain that he was keen for the distancing measures — and, by extension, the business shutdown and economic fallout — to finish as soon as possible. Philip Bump scrutinizes Trump’s effort to justify revoking the closures that have slowed the economy in an analysis for the Washington Post.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

U.S. and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian and NBC News.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The Trump administration is slashing $1 billion in assistance to Afghanistan after its rival leaders failed to form a unity government to negotiate with the Taliban following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit there yesterday. “The United States deeply regrets that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have informed Secretary Pompeo that they have been unable to agree on an inclusive government that can meet the challenges of governance, peace, and security, and provide for the health and welfare of Afghan citizens,” Pompeo said in a statement. The Guardian reporting.

Iraq needs to take international legal responsibility for its Iran-backed militias, Crispin Smith argues at Just Security, commenting, the U.S. could help Iraq make legal reforms that “would have a more durable effect on these hostile militias than a few air strikes.”

U.S. Marines and Emirati forces conducted a major military drill yesterday that saw forces seize a sprawling model Mideast city, holding the biennial exercise against the backdrop of tensions with Iran and the novel coronavirus pandemic. AP reporting.

Publishers of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post called on China today to undo the expulsion of around a dozen of their journalists, calling the decision “uniquely damaging and reckless” at a time when the world is tackling the coronavirus. China announced on March 18 it was canceling the press accreditations of all American journalists in the China bureaus of three U.S. newspapers, which were set to expire at the end of 2020. Reuters reporting. 

The House Judiciary Committee announced yesterday that it had postponed an upcoming oversight hearing with Attorney General William Barr due to the coronavirus outbreak. Barr’s March 31 testimony was billed by Democrats as a critical opportunity to uncover answers about President Trump’s efforts to influence Justice Department decisions related to two former associates. POLITICO reporting. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).