Saturday, January 23

Belarus, Coronavirus, Barack Obama: Your Thursday Briefing


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Good morning.

We’re covering early mishandling of the coronavirus by local Chinese officials, E.U. leaders’ rejection of Belarus’s election results and the return of Barack Obama to the national stage.

For months, a global backlash has built against China over its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

But a new U.S. intelligence report concludes that top officials in Beijing were in the dark in early January and that it was local officials in Wuhan and in Hubei Province who had tried to hide information from central leadership.

The internal report, a consensus of the C.I.A. and other agencies, could lead to a shift in U.S. policy on China and how we talk about the virus’s timeline. It is also consistent with assessments by experts of China’s opaque governance system.

Details: Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, current and former American officials say.

Impact: “It makes a huge difference if it was Wuhan or Beijing,” said Michael Pillsbury, a China scholar at the Hudson Institute who informally advises President Trump. It could give American officials a push to try to engage in good-faith negotiations with Beijing, he said.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other coronavirus developments:

  • The number of cases worldwide has exceeded 22 million, according to a New York Times database. More than 780,000 people have died.

  • Finland, where total cases number 7,805, announced new restrictions on incoming travelers from Iceland, Greece, Malta, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Cyprus, San Marino and Japan, starting Monday.

  • The head of the organization responsible for approving vaccines in Germany expects the first doses of a coronavirus vaccine to be available in the country by the beginning of next year.

  • Britain announced a rapid expansion of one of its testing programs, which selects a random sample of the population regardless of symptoms.

  • At $30 billion, South Africa’s stimulus package is the largest relief effort in its history as the country struggles with almost 600,000 coronavirus cases. But the government’s efforts have been plagued by accusations of fraud and mismanagement.


They did not call explicitly for another election, which the country’s opposition wants, but offered to “accompany a peaceful transition of power in Belarus.”

Official remarks: Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said that any resolution of the crisis “must be found in Belarus, not in Brussels or in Moscow.” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said it would “repurpose” $63 million in assistance away from the Belarusian government toward victims of the violence, “civil society and independent media” and the fight against the coronavirus.

What this means: While anxious to defend democratic values, Europe’s leaders are treading carefully to avoid providing a pretext for further state violence or for a Russian intervention. The E.U.’s ability to enforce its demands is thin — no European country is going to go to war over Belarus, and relatively harsh sanctions against Belarus and Russia are already in place.


Even by the government’s own numbers, cases are on the rise. What happened?

They opened too soon. When the virus first arrived in the country, they closed down for just two weeks during the New Year holiday in mid-March. They didn’t meet any of the benchmarks when they opened. There’s no contact tracing. There’s no quarantine.

What is the mood among Iranians?

In the early months, people were very scared. They were self-isolating and staying home and not sending their kids to school, even when the schools were still open. But I think, as time has passed, like a lot of places, we see that people are getting more reckless.



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