In Other News – Friday, 3/20/2019

With COVID-19 dominating headlines – from infection rates to border closures to economic fallout and bailout – important stories that would have once been front-page news have been pushed to the bottom half of A6. Here is a roundup of some significant global developments you may have missed this week:

Joe Biden has emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president after winning the Florida, Arizona, and Illinois primaries this week. He now has 1,171 of 1,991 delegates required to secure the nomination, and Bernie Sanders, with just 877, will be hard-pressed to catch up. Whoever wins the 2020 presidential election will be contending with a dire economic situation as activity grinds to a halt across the country. On top of bad economic news, we face other growing problems, including a sharp escalation of tensions with China, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, economic espionage, and an escalating conflict with Iran.

A foreign government carried out a cyber-attack on U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as the U.S. confronts the spreading coronavirus outbreak, say U.S. officials. The attack, which did not penetrate the HHS, attempted to overload the agency’s servers to slow the functioning of its computer systems. While the suspected foreign government involved has not been identified, the attempt has been described as part of a broader disinformation campaign related to the virus in the U.S., including a tweet disseminated on Sunday night warning that the president would order a two-week, nationwide mandatory quarantine. An internal EU document shared with media this week alleges that Russia and pro-Kremlin outfits have been linked to a coronavirus misinformation campaign seeking to generate anxiety and discord in western countries.

China has expelled most American journalists working for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times in China, and demanded these outlets, Time magazine and Voice of America provide detailed information on staff, finances, real estate, and operations in the country. The expelled journalists will also be barred from reporting from Hong Kong and Macau. The U.S. and China have been locked in a series of tit-for-tat journalist expulsions that began after the U.S. classified five Chinese state-run media outlets as official government entities on February 18. China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters the next day – the first expulsion of multiple journalists simultaneously since Mao was in power – and the U.S. followed up by expelling 60 of the 160 employees working at Chinese state-run media outlets in the U.S.

The U.S. and Iran trade fire in Iraq. On Thursday, March 12, U.S. forces bombed five facilities that were believed to be weapons depots for Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia operating in Iraq. The bombing was retaliation for a Kata’ib Hezbollah rocket attack the previous day that had killed two Americans and one British national. It was just this type of rocket attack that in December killed an American contractor and brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war. Experts expect retaliatory strikes between the U.S. and Iran and its proxies to continue unless the two sides reach some sort of agreement, which seems unlikely with Washington placing a new round of sanctions on Iran as it struggles to contain a severe coronavirus outbreak that has sickened more than 18,000 and killed more than 1,200.

Two American prisoners – one in Iran and the other in Lebanon – have been released. Michael R. White had been serving a 13-year sentence in an Iranian prison since July 2018 for insulting Iran’s supreme leader and posting private photographs on social media. White was freed for medical reasons but must remain in Iran, where he will undergo medical evaluation at the Swiss Embassy. Lebanese-born Amer Fakhoury, a former member of the South Lebanon Army, has been accused of running a prison where inmates were tortured during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1980’s and 1990’s. He is battling lymphoma and was freed after a Lebanese judge ordered him to be released.

Market analysts warn that oil prices could fall to $20.00/barrel or lower – as the Saudi-Russia oil price war rages on. Oil prices dipped below $30/barrel in the U.S. this week, and traders are renting storage space on crude oil tankers to hold supply until they can sell later at higher prices. But neither Saudi Arabia nor Russia appears ready to slow production to try to bring prices back up to sustainable levels, with Russia in particular showing strong determination to wait out this period of low prices to force less competitive firms, specifically those operating in U.S. shale, out of the market.

U.S. and Mexico agree to close border to non-essential traffic. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s response to COVID-19 has been criticized as too lax, as he continues to hold rallies, shake hands, and kiss babies. Meanwhile, the Credit Suisse forecast GDP contraction of 4% will not be helped by the partial closing of the U.S.-Mexico border. With $600 billion in annual cross-border trade at stake,even a partial closing is no small decision and will have economic impacts throughout North America. The U.S.-Canadian border has already closed to non-essential traffic this week, allowing for goods like food, medicine, and fuel to cross. Determining what is “essential” at both borders will no doubt cause additional confusion.