February 29 roundup: COVID-19’s global spread, elections and political manoeuvres, and the effects of extreme weather conditions

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The global spread of COVID-19 – beyond the Chinese epicentre of Wuhan – led to sweeping closures in Italy, Iran, and South Korea. In Italy (888 cases, 21 deaths, as of February 29), after the number of cases spiked from three to over a 100 in a matter of days, closures were announced in the country’s north, as part of an effort to find patient zero. It is now the largest outbreak outside of Asia. In Iran (593 cases, 43 deaths), schools, universities, and cultural centres were closed across 14 provinces. Pakistan and Turkey later closed their borders with Iran. And in South Korea (3,150 cases, 17 deaths), by raising the country’s alert level to the highest in a decade, the government of president Moon Jae-in locked down cities, including the outbreak centre of Daegu, and restricted the movement of people.

A case was also reported in Brazil, marking the first in Latin America. Sub-Saharan Africa also saw its first case in Nigeria. Saudi Arabia then suspended pilgrimages to Islam’s holiest sites for those outside the country.

Elections and political manoeuvres: First, in the Middle East. After a five-month dispute in Afghanistan, president Ashraf Ghani won a second term in an election marked by low turnout as well as the threats of violence and concerns over electoral fraud. This final result, however, was rejected by the runner-up, who has pledged to form his own parallel government. Mr. Ghani subsequently agreed to postpone the start of his second stint after the United States raised the same concerns over fraud. In Iran, the conservatives won a landslide in parliamentary elections, even though voter turnout was a record low.

In Ireland, after suffering a crushing defeat at a parliamentary vote, leader Leo Varadkar told parliament that he will resign. And in Malaysia, prime minister Mahathir Mohamad submitted his resignation to the country’s king on Monday, after his party announced that it was dropping out of the ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan. This followed weekend meetings over alleged plans to form a new government with the former ruling party the United Malays National Organisation. The king later named Muhyiddin Yassin as the new prime minister.

The effects of extreme weather conditions: The country of Kenya is battling its worst desert locust outbreak in 70 years, and the infestation – exacerbated by heavy rainfalls from October to December last year – is spreading to its neighbouring countries. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the locust crisis could threaten the food security of tens of millions in Africa.

In the United Kingdom for two consecutive weekends, the country was battered by severe weather, resulting in hundreds of flood warnings. And in the United States (US), days of torrential rain in Mississippi resulted in floods, causing water to swamp neighbourhoods. The state has already experienced heavy rains and tornadoes in the past month.

Human and labour rights in the US: In legal news: Following financial pressures and legal costs associated with cases of sexual abuse allegations, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy protection. And in business and labour news: The staff of crowdfunding platform Kickstarter voted to unionise, marking the first time the staff of a well-known technology company is being represented by organised labour. The decision was made by a 46-37 margin.

In other news: In Egypt, former president Hosni Mubarak, who was in power for three decades before the 2011 Arab Spring, died at 91. In Frankfurt, Germany, a suspect in several shootings – which left at least 10 people dead – likely had a racist motive. And in India, days of clashes between Hindus and minority Muslims over a controversial citizenship law said to be biased against Muslims, the Citizenship Amendment Act, left dozens dead.

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