The Early Edition: March 31, 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 U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic topped 3,000 yesterday, the deadliest day yet in the country’s mounting crisis. The United States has now recorded more than 164,000 cases of the virus. More than 800,000 people have been infected worldwide with 38,000 total deaths, according to a tracker ran by Johns Hopkins University. Julia Hollingsworth, Adam Renton and Joshua Berlinger report for CNN.

White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx projected yesterday that the pandemic could kill as many as 200,000 Americans in even a best-case scenario. In an interview on NBC’s Today show, Birx warned that without drastic social-distancing measures, the nation could see more than 2 million fatalities in a worst-case scenario. “I think everyone understands now that you can go from five to 50 to 500 to 5,000 cases very quickly,” Birx said, explaining that the 200,000 U.S. deaths will only occur “if we do things almost perfectly.” Ben Kesslen reports for NBC News.

Strict measures, including stay-at-home directives and restaurant closures, are contributing to sharp drops in the numbers of fevers — a signal symptom of most coronavirus infections — recorded in states across the country, according to fascinating new data produced by medical technology firm Kinsa Health. Public health officials were struggling to know how effective this measure and others have been in slowing the coronavirus. But the new data offer evidence, in real time, that harsh social-distancing restrictions may be working, potentially reducing hospital overcrowding and cutting death rates, experts said. Donald G. McNeil Jr. reports for the New York Times.

A New Jersey Army National Guardsman became the first service member to die from the novel coronavirus on Saturday, the Department of Defense announced yesterday. Army Capt. Douglas Linn Hickok, a physician assistant, passed on Saturday in Pennsylvania after having been hospitalized since March 21, National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel wrote in a message sent on Twitter. “The news of this loss strengthens our resolve to work ever more closely with our interagency partners to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in a statement. Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

New York yesterday cheered the arrival of a 1,000-bed U.S. Navy hospital ship, a converted oil tanker meant to help relieve local hospitals being overburdened by coronavirus patients. The U.S.N.S. Comfort will treat non-coronavirus patients, including those who require surgery and critical care, in an effort to free up other resources to fight the virus, the Navy said. Rebecca Kheel reports for the Hill.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo yesterday appealed for unity and bipartisan cooperation in the battle against the virus, asking out-of-state healthcare workers to aid the state’s overwhelmed hospitals and making a plea for  “partnership” with President Trump. New York has become the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak. Reuters reporting.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) officials are considering recommending that Americans wear face coverings in public to help “flatten the curve,” according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is an ongoing matter of internal discussion and nothing has been decided. The official said the new guidance would convey that the general public should not use medical masks — including surgical and N95 masks — that are in high demand and urgently needed by health-care workers. Instead, the recommendation under consideration would advise using do-it-yourself cloth coverings. Joel Achenbach, Lena H. Sun and Laurie McGinley report for the Washington Post.

Trump suggested to the governors of America’s 50 states yesterday that a chronic lack of kits to test people for the coronavirus was no longer a problem, even as governors say they still do not have enough diagnostic kits. Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman and Mike Baker report. for the New York Times.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said yesterday that the federal government sent the wrong kind of medical masks in a delivery that his state recently received. Pritzker said at a news conference that the White House told him the state could expect 300,000 N95 masks from the federal government. Instead, what Illinois received were surgical masks, which are not deemed respiratory protection by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are not completely effective in preventing coronavirus transmission. Chris Boyette and Caroline Kelly report for CNN.

The Pentagon is on course to deliver 1,400 ventilators by early May as part of an $84.4 million deal struck over the weekend, according to the Defense Department. The Defense Logistics Agency (D.L.A.) will purchase a total of 8,000 ventilators from four firms — Combat Medical Systems, Hamilton Medical, VyAire Medical and Zoll Medical Corp. — as the federal government clambers to address a shortage of life-saving medical supplies in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. “This will be a time-phased delivery over the next several months and we expect orders to begin shipment within the next few days,” Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said in a statement. “Delivery locations will be determined by FEMA.” Ellen Mitchell reports for the Hill.

N.Y.U. Langone Health, one of the nation’s top academic medical centers, told emergency-room physicians that they have “sole discretion” to put patients on ventilators and institutional support to “withhold futile intubations.” A March 28 email from Robert Femia, who heads the New York health center’s department of emergency medicine, stressed the life-or-death decisions forced onto bedside doctors as they treat rising numbers of coronavirus patients with a finite supply of ventilators. New York state guidelines, established in 2015, recommend that hospitals appoint a triage officer or committee — someone other than the attending physician — to decide who gets a ventilator when rationing is unavoidable. Dr. Femia said in his email that experts and leaders at N.Y.U. Langone were drafting internal guidance on how to allocate ventilators, which are in scant supply across New York City. Shalini Ramachandran and Joe Palazzolo report for the Wall Street Journal.

Migrants who enter into the United States illegally are being ejected to Mexico in an average of 96 minutes under emergency coronavirus measures now operating across the U.S. southern border, according to three U.S. officials with knowledge of the latest government statistics. The pandemic has enabled the U.S. Border Patrol to implement the type of rapid-fire deportation system Trump has long commended as his preferred approach to immigration enforcement. Nick Miroff reports for the Washington Post.

U.S. spy agencies trying to construct an accurate picture of the world’s coronavirus outbreaks are finding serious gaps in their ability to evaluate the situation in China, Russia and North Korea, according to five U.S. government sources familiar with the intelligence reporting. The agencies also have narrow insight into the full impact of the pandemic in Iran, although information on infections and deaths among the ruling class and public is becoming increasingly available on official and social media, two sources said. Reuters reporting.

Trump yesterday said he doubted reports of foreign disinformation campaigns related to the coronavirus pandemic, contradicting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who has been a robust critic of China and Iran in particular. Asked about reported efforts by China, Russia and Iran to mislead the public about the origins of the pandemic and the U.S. response to it, Trump countered by expressing skepticism about the media reports and implying that they were aimed at harming his presidency. Jennifer Hansler reports for CNN.

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter said yesterday that they had ordered the taking down of a video in which Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro endorsed a drug he falsely claimed was working everywhere against the coronavirus. It is uncommon for tech firms to remove a post from a head of state, but the coronavirus pandemic has led the companies to move aggressively to filter out unfounded medical advice, hoaxes and other false information that they say could jeopardize public health. “We remove content on Facebook and Instagram that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow misinformation that could lead to physical harm,” Facebook said in a statement. David Ingram reports for NBC News.

Hungary’s parliament yesterday approved sweeping legislation giving Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government extraordinary powers during the coronavirus pandemic, without fixing an end date for their expiration. The “coronavirus bill,” which allows Orban to rule by decree and bypass the national assembly, passed by 137 to 53 votes despite criticism from opposition parties, international institutions and civic groups for failing to attach an expiration date. AP reporting.

A private Iranian airline linked to the regime’s ideological army and sanctioned by the United States may have contributed to the country’s devastating outbreak. The airline, Mahan Air, continued uninterrupted flights to and from China, including Wuhan, several weeks after the epidemic had already broken out, potentially worsening its spread among the population. Kevin Lim reports for Foreign Policy.

How can North Korea claim to not have a single coronavirus case while countries ​around the world teeter under the erupting epidemic? Choe Sang-Hun takes a look at the New York Times.

“The pandemic may be a boon to governments with an autocratic bent,” Selam Gebrekidan warns at the New York Times, writing, to fight the pandemic, leaders worldwide are “invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance.”

A fact check on Trump’s “inaccurate and misleading” statements during his coronavirus press briefing yesterday afternoon from the White House Rose Garden is provided by Daniel Dale and Marshall Cohen at CNN.

How can we use technology to stop the disease’s spread in a way that protects privacy and civil liberties? Jay Stanley explores the tensions at Just Security.

“If U.S. policymakers don’t exert some energy right now figuring out why the world got knocked to its knees by COVID-19, and why the United States … was virtually impotent when it came to stopping the virus from reaching our shores, then we risk having to go through this nightmare all over again,” Chris Murphy  argues at Foreign Policy, urging the government to reflect on what went wrong with the U.S. response.

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.

VENEZUELA

The Trump administration is proposing a transitional government in Venezuela formed of the opposition and some members of President Nicolás Maduro’s Socialist Party and is setting out for the first time how U.S. sanctions might ultimately be lifted, including on the crucial oil sector. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected today to unveil the administration’s “Democratic Transition Framework” for Venezuela, which, according to a document seen by Reuters, lays out a detailed, “sequenced exit path” from harsh U.S. sanctions if Maduro and his allies cooperate. Reuters reporting.

“The indictment [against Maduro on narco-terrorism charges] may be nothing more than the usual American bluff and bluster, with no strategic calculation beyond pandering for votes in November’s presidential election,” Jorge G. Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, writes for the New York Times, questioning the Trump administration’s motive behind the most recent accusations.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

North Korea said yesterday that it had “lost all appetite” ​for nuclear talks with the United States because of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s never-ending pressure​ on the ​country to give up its nuclear ​weapons program. After a teleconference of foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G-7) leading industrial nations last week, Pompeo called on the international community to unify in pressuring Pyongyang on its nuclear and missile plans. The New York Times reporting.

The State Department yesterday extended several waivers on U.S. sanctions against Iran, allowing companies from Russia, China and Europe to continue their work at Iranian nuclear facilities without being subject to American penalties. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed off on the waiver extensions but framed the move as one that continues restrictions on Iran’s atomic work. AP reporting.

Kurdish-led forces have successfully ended riots by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in a detention centre in northeast Syria with no prisoners escaping the facility, the senior commander of the U.S.-backed forces said today. AP reporting.

“Saudi Arabia is in daily talks with Iran-aligned Houthi insurgents in Yemen and has invited Houthi representatives and the internationally recognized government in Yemen to peace talks in the kingdom,” a senior Saudi official said. Saudi’s ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, said the offer for talks to halt the five-year war, which has killed more than 100,000 people, holds despite a flare-up in violence over the weekend. The Houthis have not yet responded to the proposal, he said. The Wall Street Journal reporting.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) formally resigned from Congress yesterday, more than three weeks after he was selected to be President Trump’s new chief of staff. Meadows will begin his new role today, his spokesperson said. NBC News reporting.

States are currently reviewing the U.N.’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, a negotiation that would be difficult under normal circumstances, but made near impossible by COVID-19, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, writes in an analysis of the resolution for Just Security. 

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).