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What's Happening: Inmates seek release, war weaken defences

Last Updated Mar 18, 2020 at 1:31 pm PDT

Medical staff members arrive for a duty shift at Dongsan Hospital in Daegu, South Korea, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (Lee Moo-ryul/Newsis via AP)

These are some of the latest developments Wednesday in the world’s coronavirus pandemic:


The number of people infected worldwide surpassed the 200,000 mark. Deaths topped 8,000, but the number of people considered recovered reached over 82,000, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. The countries with the most confirmed cases were China, Italy, Iran, Spain and Germany. The countries with the most confirmed deaths were China, Italy, Iran, Spain and France.


Governments grappled with how to implement border closures and lockdowns that caused transportation chaos and imperiled economies but which authorities said y are needed to slow the spread of the virus. European Union leaders agreed to shut down the bloc’s external borders and ban entry of most foreigners for 30 days. The United States and Canada were working on a mutual ban on nonessential travel between the two countries.


Long-running wars and conflicts across the Middle East have wrecked potential defenses against coronavirus outbreaks, leaving millions vulnerable in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and elsewhere. Health care systems have been gutted; war has damaged key infrastructure. Several of the countries are carved up among opposing factions, rival claimant governments or armed groups, impeding any possible nationwide strategies to protect public health. Further complicating the response in countries with long-running conflicts, hundreds of thousands of people driven from their homes by fighting are crowded in close quarters in tent camps or improper housing.


America’s nearly 7,000 jails, prisons and correction facilities are an ideal breeding ground for the coronavirus, as dangerous as nursing homes and cruise ships but far less sanitary. That has prompted some inmates to plead for compassionate release or home detention. Among them are President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, the former head of the Cali drug cartel and dozens of inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island, part of a jail system that lost an employee to the virus this week.


The novel coronavirus has rapidly redefined the concept of respecting personal space for Italians, as well as for South Koreans, Filipinos, Americans, Spaniards and citizens of many other crowded parts of the world. In hard-hit Italy, a nationwide decree that took effect last week obliges people to stay at least 1 meter (about 40 inches) apart. Overnight, habits were turned upside down in a tactile society where walking arm-in-arm with friends, kissing neighbors in greeting and patting the heads of babies are the norm. Whether acting under government orders or following basic public health advice, people are putting distance between themselves to keep the coronavirus away.


Americans are used to thinking themselves as the kind of people who fight crises with tough action. That is making the key recommendation in this pandemic — staying home — hard for many people. The central mythology across much of the country’s history, from the Puritans to the frontier to 9/11, has been about getting up and going out to do what needs to be done — not staying home, being quiet and practicing what can look a whole lot like inaction. A recent meme popping up everywhere on social media this week says: “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.” Staying home also is proving challenging for people in France and Italy, where police are ticketing individuals without valid reasons for being out and about.