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US nears grim milestone of 200 000 COVID-19 deaths
22 September 2020, 1:09 AM

The death toll from the spread of the coronavirus in the United States was approaching over 200 000 on Monday, by the far the highest number of any nation.

The United States, on a weekly average, is now losing about 800 lives each day to the virus, according to a Reuters tally. That is down from a peak of 2 806 daily deaths recorded on April 15.

During the early months of the pandemic, 200 000 deaths was regarded by many as the maximum number of lives likely to be lost in the United States to the virus. Now the country could reach that point late Monday or on Tuesday.

With cases rising again in both the United States and Europe, Wall Street fell to a seven-week low at one point on Monday on fears of renewed lockdown measures, before paring losses.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump said the worst was over, as the death toll reached 199 808, with 6.8 million confirmed cases.

“We are rounding the corner on the pandemic, with or without a vaccine… and we’ve done a phenomenal job – not just a good job – a phenomenal job. Other than public relations, but that’s because I have fake news.”

Trump has previously admitted to playing down the danger of the coronavirus early on because he did not want to “create a panic.”

With barely six weeks left before the election on November 3, Trump is behind Democratic rival Joe Biden nationally in every major opinion poll and is neck and neck in key swing states. Trump’s handling of the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn has battered his standing among many voters.

Trump has frequently questioned the advice of scientific experts on everything from the timing of a vaccine to reopening schools and businesses to wearing a mask. He has refused to support a national mask mandate and held large political rallies where few wore masks.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield recently told Congress that a face mask would provide more guaranteed protection than a vaccine, which would only be broadly available by “late second quarter, third quarter 2021.”

Trump refuted the timeline for the vaccine and said that it may be available in a matter of weeks and ahead of the November 3 election.

Biden, who often wears a mask and has said he would require masks nationwide, has warned against a rushed release of a vaccine, saying, “Let me be clear: I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump.”

The University of Washington’s health institute is forecasting coronavirus fatalities reaching 378 000 by the end of 2020, with the daily death toll skyrocketing to 3 000 per day in December.

Over 70% of those in the United States who have lost their lives to the virus were over the age of 65, according to CDC data.

The southern states of Texas and Florida contributed the most deaths in the United States in the past two weeks and were closely followed by California.

California, Texas and Florida – the three most populous US states – have recorded the most coronavirus infections and have long surpassed the state of New York, which was the epicenter of the outbreak in early 2020. The country as a whole is reporting over 40 000 new infections on average each day and saw cases last week rise on a weekly basis after falling for eight weeks in a row.

Deaths rose 5% last week after falling for four weeks in a row, according to a Reuters analysis.

Six out of every 10 000 residents in the United States has died of the virus, according to Reuters data, one of the highest rates among developed nations.

Brazil follows the United States in the number of overall deaths due to the virus, with over 136 000 fatalities. India has had the world’s highest daily death rate over the last week, with total deaths now approaching 100 000.

SA records 725 new COVID-19 cases, 39 deaths
21 September 2020, 11:45 PM

South Africa has recorded 725 new coronavirus cases. This brings the total number of cases to 661 936.

The country has also recorded 39 new COVID-19 related fatalities, bringing the total number of deaths to 15 992.

In a statement, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize says most of the new deaths were recorded in the North West.

“Regrettably, we report 39 more COVID-19 related deaths: “16 from North West, 1 from KwaZulu-Natal, 9 from Gauteng, 9 from Eastern Cape and 4 from Western Cape,” says Dr Mkhize.

The cumulative number of tests conducted to date is 4 047 723.

The number of recoveries now stands at 591 208, this translates to a recovery rate of 89,3%.

New US COVID-19 cases rise 17% in past week, deaths up 5%
21 September 2020, 11:12 PM

The weekly number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States rose last week for the first time after falling for eight straight weeks, an increase that health experts attributed to schools reopening and parties over the Labour Day holiday.

New cases rose 17% to about 287 000 for the week ended September 20, while deaths rose 5.5% to about 5 400 people after falling for the previous four weeks, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports.

Thirteen states have seen weekly infections rise for at least two weeks, up from nine states the previous week, according to the Reuters tally.

In Arizona, new cases doubled last week.

On average, more than 776 people a day died from COVID-19 last week, with deaths rising in Arkansas, Kansas and Virginia.

After weeks of declining test rates, an average of 812 000 people a day were tested last week.

The country set a record of testing over 1 million people on Saturday.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 fell for a seventh week to 5.0%, well below a recent peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, 26 of the 50 states still have positive test rates above the 5% level that the World Health Organization considers concerning.

The highest positive test rates are in the Midwest at over 16% in Idaho, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota.

Czech PM Babis taps epidemiologist as minister to fight COVID-19 surge
21 September 2020, 11:12 PM

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis tapped a top epidemiologist as Health Minister on Monday after the previous minister quit amid a spike in COVID-19 infections that has led to the country’s total cases doubling within just three weeks.

The Czech Republic’s spike in cases has been the second fastest in Europe on a rolling two-week basis after Spain when adjusted for population. On Monday, the total tally of cases grew past 50 000, up from 24 618 at the end of August.

The jump comes after the country – which was very quick to take strong measures to avoid mass spreading in the spring – loosened restrictions more than many others in the summer. It also comes just before regional elections less than two weeks away.

The surge has markets nervous, with the crown falling more than 1% on Monday to a nearly four-month low of 27.225 to the euro amid worry new restrictions could come into play and hurt an economy recovering from a record 11% year-on-year contraction in the second quarter.

In a televised address on Monday evening, Babis repeated the government did not want mass lockdowns like those in March that shut businesses, restaurants and schools. He urged people to stick to existing measures and wear face masks.

Babis picked Roman Prymula, who helped lead the central European country’s response to the initial coronavirus outbreak, to replace Adam Vojtech, who quit on Monday after growing criticism.

“Professor Prymula will have crisis management as his main task,” Babis said.

Prymula is widely seen as a straight talker, who once warned Czechs that travel could be disrupted for two years because of the novel coronavirus. He has said daily cases could swell to 6 000-8 000 from around 1 000-3 000 now.

Vojtech had been heavily criticised over the new wave of infections although some opposition politicians saw him as a scapegoat for the government, which critics say has been inconsistent in its response.

Debate is growing over whether the government should take steps allowing it to impose stricter measures if needed.

In the past 14 days, the Czech Republic has had 197 cases per 100 000 people, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, less than only Spain.

The virus has killed 521 people in the country, rising 23% since August 31, while hospitalisations have almost tripled in that time.

The government has said there were enough hospital beds and staff for now but unchecked spreading could stretch capacities.

Trailblazing US Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg dies; succession battle looms
19 September 2020, 4:59 AM

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a stalwart liberal on the US Supreme Court since 1993, died on Friday at age 87, the court said, giving President Donald Trump a chance to expand its conservative majority with a third appointment at a time of deep divisions in America with a presidential election looming.

Ginsburg, a champion of women’s rights who became an icon for American liberals, died at her home in Washington of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, the court said in a statement. She was surrounded by her family, it said.

Ginsburg’s death could dramatically alter the ideological balance of the court, which already had a 5-4 conservative majority, by moving it further to the right.

“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her – a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”

Trump, seeking re-election on November 3, already has appointed two conservatives to lifetime posts on the court, Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Supreme Court appointments require Senate confirmation, and Trump’s fellow Republicans control the chamber, holding 53 seats of the 100 seats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he intends to act on any nomination Trump makes.

“President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” McConnell said.

McConnell’s stance is a dramatic reversal from the position he took in a similar situation four years ago, when he refused to act on Democratic President Barack Obama’s election-year nomination of centrist appeals court judge Merrick Garland to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. Some Democrats accused McConnell and his fellow Republicans of “stealing” a Supreme Court seat.

McConnell’s explanation in a statement on Friday was that in 2016 the Senate and White House were controlled by different parties while now they are both controlled by Republicans. Democrats have called McConnell’s about-face hypocrisy.

Trump is facing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the election. Informed by reporters after a rally in Minnesota about Ginsburg’s death, Trump said: “She led an amazing life. What else can you say? She was an amazing woman.” Trump, who as a presidential candidate in 2016 called on Ginsburg to resign and said “her mind is shot” after she criticized him in media interviews, did not mention any potential plans about nominating a replacement.

Biden voiced opposition to Trump sending a nominee to the Senate before the election, saying the winner of the election should get to select Ginsburg’s replacement.

“There is no doubt – let me be clear – that the voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider,” Biden told reporters in Delaware.

US Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer wrote on Twitter: “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Soon after her death was announced, a large nighttime crowd gathered outside the white marble neoclassical Supreme Court building to pay tribute to Ginsburg, with some lighting candles, leaving flowers and waving rainbow flags for LGBT rights.

Supreme Court justices play an enormous role in shaping US policies on hot-button issues like abortion, LGBT rights, gun rights, religious liberty, the death penalty and presidential powers. For example, the court in 1973 legalized abortion nationwide – a decision that some conservatives are eager to overturn – and in 2015 allowed same-sex marriage across the United States.

Ginsburg, who rose from a working class upbringing in New York City’s borough of Brooklyn and prevailed over systematic sexism in the legal ranks to become one of America’s best-known jurists, was appointed to the Supreme Court by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993. She provided key votes in landmark rulings securing equal rights for women, expanding gay rights and safeguarding abortion rights.

Ginsburg had experienced a series of health issues including bouts with pancreatic cancer in 2019 and lung cancer in 2018, a previous bout with pancreatic cancer in 2009 and colon cancer in 1999. She disclosed on July 17 that she had a recurrence of cancer.

Ginsburg was the oldest member of the court and the second-longest serving among its current justices behind Clarence Thomas. She was the second woman ever named to the court, after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed 12 years earlier.

The expected Senate confirmation battle over a Trump nominee to replace Ginsburg is likely to be fierce – at a time of social unrest in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic – though Democrats lack the votes to block him unless some Republican senators join them.

Republicans also risk the possibility of Democrats embracing more radical proposals should they win November’s election, with some activists on the left suggesting even before Ginsburg’s death that they should increase the number of justices on the court in order to counter Trump’s appointees.

Trump on September 9 unveiled a list of potential nominees to fill any future Supreme Court vacancies in a move aimed at bolstering support among conservative voters.

Many court-watchers expect Trump to attempt to replace Ginsburg with a woman. One possible contender on Trump’s list is Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative judge on the Chicago-based 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals who was under consideration in 2018 before Trump nominated Kavanaugh.

National Public Radio reported on Friday that Ginsburg before her death dictated a statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera, saying, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

Numerous political luminaries paid tribute to Ginsburg including former presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

Trump will get a chance to reshape the court like no other president since Ronald Reagan, who made three appointments during his eight years in office in the 1980s, moving the court to the right.

Trump and McConnell have made moving the federal judiciary to the right a top priority. Another Trump appointment would give the Supreme Court a 6-3 conservative majority, meaning that for the liberal justices to prevail in any case they would need to have two of the conservatives join them.

Some liberal activists had urged Ginsburg to step down early in Obama’s second term to allow him to appoint a younger liberal to replace her who could serve decades on the court.

Recent Supreme Court confirmations have taken at least two months from the day the nomination was announced.

A private interment service for Ginsburg will be held at Arlington National Cemetery, the court said, but did not specify a date.

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