Coronavirus Politics Daily: Iran's anguish, Gaza on the brink, Orban pulls a fast one

Iran's corona quagmire – As the coronavirus death toll climbs in Iran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has rejected US offers of humanitarian aid, citing a bogus conspiracy theory that the virus was manufactured by the United States. In a televised address marking the Persian New Year, Khamenei denounced President Trump's "maximum pressure campaign" since the US walked away from the nuclear deal in 2018. Iran's leaders say that the Trump administration should instead lift crippling sanctions that block Tehran from exporting crude oil and accessing global financial markets. Iran is battling one of the world's largest COVID-19 outbreaks, with some 22,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,800 deaths. One person in Iran dies from the virus every 10 minutes, according to an Iranian health official. The message from Washington: we'll offer humanitarian help if you want it, but sanctions aren't going anywhere.


COVID-19 reaches Gaza – Late Saturday, Palestinian authorities confirmed at least two coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip, both recent returnees from Pakistan. Officials have now moved to isolate all travelers returning to the coastal enclave, but many say the quarantine facilities (schools, medical facilities) have extremely poor sanitary conditions that would allow the virus to thrive. Gaza, home to some 2 million people, is one of the most densely populated places in the world, complicating efforts at social distancing, and its healthcare system is already in disarray after years-long blockades by both Israel and Egypt. If the virus sweeps Gaza – which is already grappling with spotty electricity, corrupt leadership, and scarce resources – the outcome will be catastrophic.

Coronavirus infects Hungary's democracy – Hungary's defiantly "illiberal" Prime Minister Viktor Orban knows that a proper strongman lets no good crisis go to waste. After staying on-message early by blaming the pandemic on immigrants, he has now proposed changes to the country's emergency laws that would allow him to rule by decree indefinitely, while mandating jail sentences of up to five years for spreading information that raises panic or impedes the government's response. Orban, who has come under EU criticism for violating EU rules on democracy in the past, says he needs these new powers to grapple with the enormity of the crisis, but critics and human rights watchdogs warn that the measures are open-ended and threaten free speech. Hungary's legislature, which is controlled by Orban's Fidesz party, will vote on the changes this week.

Brazil's governors take on Bolsonaro: We've previously written about the tensions between local and national governments over coronavirus response, but few places have had it as bad as Brazil. As COVID-19 infections surged in Brazil, the country's governors quickly mobilized – often with scarce resources – to enforce citywide lockdowns. Brazil's gangs have even risen to the occasion, enforcing strict curfews to limit the virus' spread in Rio de Janeiro. But Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has mocked the seriousness of the disease and urged states to loosen quarantines in order to get the economy up and running again. "Put the people to work," he said this week, "Preserve the elderly; preserve those who have health problems. But nothing more than that." In response, governors around the country – including some of his allies – issued a joint letter to the president, begging him to listen to health experts and help states contain the virus. The governor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic powerhouse, has even threatened to sue the federal government if Bolsonaro continues to undermine his efforts to combat the virus' spread.

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The major outbreaks of coronavirus in China, Europe, and the United States have garnered the most Western media attention in recent weeks. Yesterday, we went behind the headlines to see how Mexico and Russia are faring. Today, we'll look at three other potential hotspots where authorities and citizens are now contending with the worst global pandemic in a century.

Start with India. For weeks, coronavirus questions hovered above that other country with a billion-plus people, a famously chaotic democracy where the central government can't simply order a Chinese-scale public lockdown with confidence that it will be respected. It's a country where 90 percent of people work off the books— without a minimum wage, a pension, a strong national healthcare system, or a way to work from home.

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In the end, it took the coronavirus to break the year-long deadlock in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu will still face corruption charges, but he has yet another new lease on political life, as he and political rival Benny Gantz cut a deal yesterday: Bibi will continue as prime minister, with Gantz serving as Speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. After 18 months, Gantz will take over as prime minister, but many doubt that will ever happen.

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With large parts of the American economy shuttered because of coronavirus-related lockdowns, the number of people filing jobless claims in the US last week exceeded 3.2 million, by far the highest number on record. Here's a look at the historical context. The surge in jobless claims, which may be an undercount, is sure to cause a spike in the unemployment rate (which tells you the percent of work-ready people who are looking for a job). At last reading in February, unemployment was at a 50-year low of 3.5 percent. Economists warn that it could reach 5.5 percent in the near term. Even that would be far lower than the jobless rates recorded during previous economic crises such as the Great Depression or the Great Recession. Have a look.