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Coronavirus Response In Middle East, Africa, Latin America


China, Italy and now the United States. All three countries have been at the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic. So, naturally, a lot of the news coverage of the virus has focused on those nations. But the pandemic is having an impact in nearly every part of the world. So we wanted to hear how some other countries away from the spotlight are responding. For that, we're turning to three of NPR's international correspondents. First up, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Daniel, welcome.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: So I understand that Israel has more than 3,000 confirmed cases. How is the government responding to this?

ESTRIN: Well, Israel mobilized pretty quickly. It's been a couple steps ahead of a lot of other countries. It's a tiny country, so there were fears that the virus could spread fast. Right now, you can't go more than about 300 feet outside your home. There are some exceptions. No foreign visitors are being let into the country at all. Israelis with mild cases of coronavirus are being - actually being put in hotels turned into quarantine centers so they don't infect their families at home. And starting today, any Israelis who fly in from the U.S. and also Italy, France and Spain are being put in these quarantine hotels, and they'll all be tested for the virus.

MARTIN: I understand there's been some controversy over the response from some of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. What's the issue there?

ESTRIN: Yeah, you know, in Israel, the biggest virus outbreaks have been in areas with large ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. They live in communal lifestyles, big families, big groups and synagogues. So the virus has spread quickly, and the community has been slow to respond. First of all, a lot of people don't have smartphones or TVs in that community. So the government has been trying to get the word out with different ways, like with loudspeakers, blasting orders in Yiddish.

Also, their community has tense relationships with the authorities here because the government is often seen as a way of getting in their way of their devout way of living. So when the authorities tell them close your synagogues to stop the spread of the virus, they have been resistant. But what we're seeing now is that some ultra-Orthodox rabbis are acting kind of like what you see governors in the U.S. doing, coming out with their own lockdown orders from their own communities.

MARTIN: And what about in the Palestinian territories - the West Bank and Gaza?

ESTRIN: Yeah. Well, the Gaza Strip is especially worrying. We're talking about a small strip of land, densely populated, 2 million people, most of them living in poverty. So if the virus gets out of hand there, it would really be a perfect storm for a disaster. They don't have enough ventilators, enough medicine, supplies. And they're under blockade. And that means something ironic, you know. People have not had many opportunities to bring in the virus, so that helps them.

On the other hand, they say they experience that as collective punishment - the blockade from Israel and Egypt. But there are a couple of cases of virus in Gaza. There are quarantine centers there. The World Health Organization says they're donating test kits and supplies. In the West Bank, there also have been some cases, and Palestinian authorities are imposing a very strict lockdown there.

MARTIN: Thanks, Daniel.

Let's go to Kenya in East Africa. NPR's Eyder Peralta is there. Eyder, good to hear you as well.


MARTIN: So Kenya just reported its first death from COVID-19 this past week. I understand, though, that there are still relatively few confirmed cases. Is that accurate?

PERALTA: That is, yeah.

MARTIN: So is the Kenyan government urging people to stay home? I mean, what are the steps being taken there?

PERALTA: So, I mean, last night, we had our first curfew here. And you can probably hear crickets right now. That's how quiet my neighborhood is. But that's not indicative of what happened overnight across the country 'cause it was complete chaos. Security forces fired tear gas, and they beat people trying to get on a ferry in Mombasa. Here in Nairobi, police whipped people who were out after curfew. I talked to witnesses who said women who were selling vegetables after curfew - they were tear-gassed.

And right now, in Kenya, as you said, there's 38 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and there's an expectation, though, that this is about to get worse because there are cases of community transmission that are being reported here in Nairobi. So these social distancing measures - they're going to get more severe. And people here - they can't afford to stay home from work. Some won't eat if they do. One human rights advocate I spoke to says it's like the perfect storm for conflict. We have a restless population and a reckless security service, he said.

MARTIN: And there's also - there are also a lot of refugees there. As I understand it, there are tens of thousands of refugees from Somalia and elsewhere who live in camps in Kenya now. What are the arrangements there? I mean, are there - is there any sense of what might happen if there's an outbreak in one of those camps?

PERALTA: So, I mean, that's always a concern in this region, right? So far, we haven't seen any reported cases in those camps. But I want to point you, actually, to Democratic Republic of Congo because in eastern DRC, they're just coming off this terrible Ebola outbreak. And the government has just reported a case of coronavirus in that same region. And this is a place with dozens of armed groups, millions of displaced people. And just to tell you how bad things can get there, since the beginning of 2019, Congo has been battling this huge measles outbreak, and that has killed more than 6,000 people. And I should remind you there is a vaccine for measles.

MARTIN: Wow, yeah. OK, thank you, Eyder.

Next to Brazil and NPR's Philip Reeves. Philip, good to hear your voice.


MARTIN: So here in the U.S., President Trump has caused quite a bit of controversy when he's been seen to be downplaying the threat from the virus. And I hear that something similar is happening with the president of Brazil. What's he been saying?

REEVES: Yeah, the president of Brazil is Jair Bolsonaro. He's from the far-right, and he's a close ally and a big admirer of Trump. Now, the virus has arrived here in Brazil. It arrived late, but it's here. We have roughly 3,500 confirmed cases, and the number of deaths is approaching three digits. Governors and mayors around the country have been encouraging people to stay home. They've closed non-essential businesses and schools and so on, yet Bolsonaro is very vocally campaigning against that.

He's against all-out social isolation, of business shutdowns. He says this causes such economic devastation that the cure is worse than the disease. He reckons the at-risk group are the over-60s. He wants only them isolated. He says the overwhelming majority of younger Brazilians suffer mild or no symptoms, and that obviously places him at odds with medical and scientific opinion worldwide. And what makes this doubly dangerous is the language that Bolsonaro is using.

In an interview yesterday, he actually questioned some of the death numbers in Brazil, suggesting they're politically manipulated by his rivals. And he said that some people are going to die, sorry, but that's life. You can't stop a car factory just because there are 60,000 deadly car accidents in a year. He's been claiming that Brazilians are immune, saying that they never catch anything and citing the example of people who swim in sewers. And he says that he is 65 years old, but he says he thinks that he won't suffer if he catches the coronavirus - more than a little flu because he's an athlete, he says.

MARTIN: Wow. Wow. Is there any sort of pushback to this to this cavalier attitude?

REEVES: Oh, absolutely. Oh, most certainly there is. Scientists, medical professionals, numerous others are condemning his approach as dangerous and irresponsible. And we've got unfortunately a political fight. He's opposed by almost all of Brazil's state governors and many city mayors. That includes the governor of Sao Paulo state. Forty-five million people live in that state, and it includes the giant city of Sao Paolo. And that governor's been urging people to stay home. And he's closed - he's successfully closed much of the city down. So has the governor of Rio. And Bolsonaro is challenging that.

But look. It's angered a lot of people in urban areas. For the last week or more, you've been hearing people leaning out of their windows clattering pots and pans. But it's important to remember Bolsonaro has supporters, people who are losing jobs and businesses, people who believe that scientific arguments are a conspiracy theory. And groups of them have begun organizing motorcades, driving through various cities calling for restrictions to be lifted for all but the elderly and for Brazil to get back to work.

And, you know, this is all happening in the context of a country that doesn't have sufficient - enough health resources to combat a really seriously large wave of infections, a country that has favelas, very overcrowded neighborhoods in which there are virtually no medical services or very, very limited ones, where people live crowded together. So it's an incredibly worrying situation.

MARTIN: Very sobering reports from everyone. That was NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio. We also heard from NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem and NPR's Eyder Peralta in Nairobi. Thank you all so much for joining us today.

REEVES: You're welcome.

PERALTA: Thanks.

ESTRIN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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