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World News

Brazil's biggest state brings forward holiday to contain coronavirus spread

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Lawmakers in Brazil’s biggest state of Sao Paulo have decided to bring forward to Monday a holiday scheduled for July 9, in an attempt to strengthen social distancing and contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The move on Friday adds to efforts already made by the city of Sao Paulo, which had earlier this week brought forward two holidays.

The state of Sao Paulo has 73,739 confirmed cases of COVID-19, nearly one quarter of the country’s total toll, and 5,558 deaths caused by the disease.

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Economy

COVID-19 leads to drop in power usage, operational challenges for BC Hydro: report

BC Hydro says it’s struggling to deal with a decline in electricity usage during the COVID-19 pandemic and that the decline is forcing the company to take action to avoid flooding risks.

The company says there has been a 10 per cent drop in electricity usage that could increase to 12 per cent by April of next year, which is double the decline caused by the 2008 recession.

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That drop in demand, coupled with high inflows from spring melts and limited export markets, means there’s a huge surplus in the system.

The utility says there’s a possibility that reservoirs could reach their capacity and create a significant impact on the environment and BC Hydro infrastructure.

To avoid flooding risks, the company is immediately shutting down operations at smaller plants to reduce generation, spilling water at facilities and generation from other sources and is working to export to other jurisdictions.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created an extraordinary situation with our system that we’re working to address,” Chris O’Riley, BC Hydro president and CEO, said in a release. “We’re confident that through these measures, we’ll be able to avoid the public safety and environmental risks that would be created by excessive spilling at our facilities.”

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World News

Italy leads Europe in easing coronavirus lockdown measures

As restrictions lifted, social distancing measures enforced as masks preferred as way to try and limit more outbreaks.

Italy is leading Europe in easing lockdown measures aimed at containing the spread of the new coronavirus, almost two months after the epidemic hit the continent.

More than 4.4 million Italians went back to work on Monday after seven weeks of extraordinary restrictive measures.

More:

  • Europe begins to consider emerging from lockdown

  • Conte defends ‘slowly-slowly’ lifting of Italy’s lockdown

  • Far-right governor defies Rome, lifts Venice lockdown early

In Italy, Europe’s worst-hit country in terms of deaths, almost 30,000 people have died amid more than 210,700 infections, according to the national Civil Protection Agency.

The return to work came as Italy tries to cushion the economic impact of the shutdowns.

Its economy, the euro zone’s third-largest last year, is expected to shrink more than in any year since the global depression of the 1930s.

Half of Italy’s workforce is receiving state support and the same number told a top pollster that they were afraid of becoming unemployed.

The long-awaited phase two includes resuming activities within factories, building sites and wholesale trade.

Italians are now also allowed to visit family members and people with whom they have an “established emotional bond” in the same region.

Parks are open for walking and running, and people can go for sport activities even far from home.

Social gatherings remain banned and it is mandatory to wear a mask on public transportation and in closed public spaces.

Restrictions on funerals have been relaxed, with a maximum of 15 mourners allowed to attend, but masses and weddings will have to wait.

Bars, hair salons and restaurants will be allowed to reopen only on June 1, if the rate of infection continues to lower.

‘We can hear more noise now’

As the lockdown eased, the sounds of banging and drilling echoed across Rome and a group of men drank espresso out of plastic cups in front of the Pantheon, the former Roman temple, as cafes reopened for takeaway services.

“We can hear more noise now,” Rome grocery store owner Daniela told the AFP news agency. “It’s better than this frightening silence.”

Though decreasing, the number of cases reported each day is still in thousands.

On Sunday, 174 deaths were reported amid more than 13,000 new infections. 

“Feelings of Italians are mixed. There is glimpse of hope that the worst is passed, but many are concerned that this phase could bring a second wave of infections,” journalist Francesco Giambertone told Al Jazeera from Milan.

These concerns stem from the lack of new measures addressed to prevent a further spread of the virus, Giambertone said. Many worry that little has changed since phase one.

“Nothing has been said about new tests which in March and February were not enough for everyone who needed to be tested,” said Giambertone, adding, “it’s not easy now to understand why some regions are making [antibody] tests and some are not.”

The government has been working on a contact tracing application but it is not ready yet.

Relaxing measures across Europe

Some other countries in Europe also lifted restrictions on Monday.

The streets of the Greek capital Athens resounded with the noise of car horns after weeks of movement restrictions.

Some businesses have also opened as part of what authorities say will be a staggered reopening of the economy.

Barbershops and stores selling books, sporting goods, stationery, and other items can now open, albeit with strict hygiene and social distancing measures in place.

Masks are now compulsory for staff and passengers on public transport and employees in shops selling fresh food. Violators face fines.

On Monday morning, Greek police carried out inspections on buses and at metro stations to make sure passengers were wearing the mandatory surgical masks, and in shops to check whether social distancing rules were being followed.

Business-to-business companies opened offices to employees again in Belgium, even though remote work is still encouraged. Those who work from offices need to respect social distancing or wear protective masks.

Textile shops selling cloth will open, too, because they are essential if people want to make their own protective masks. Those masks will also be mandatory on public transport, which will seek to reopen at full capacity. And people will be allowed to exercise and play sport with two others.

As Germany reported 76 new deaths on Sunday, its lowest number since March 31, children were allowed on Monday for the first time back to school. Barbershops were also set to open their doors after being closed for almost two months as part of the lockdown measures.

Slovenia, Poland and Hungary joined Germany in allowing public spaces and businesses to partially reopen.

Portugal allowed small shops, salons and car dealers to resume business as well, but ordered facemasks to be worn in stores and on public transport.


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World News

Former Polish presidents, PMs call for presidential election boycott

WARSAW (Reuters) – Nine former Polish prime ministers and presidents urged voters on Thursday to boycott next month’s planned presidential election, arguing that the ballot, to be held by post, could be unconstitutional and did not guarantee voter confidentiality.

The group included Lech Walesa, who helped overthrow communism as head of the Solidarity trade union movement. Former European Council president and Polish prime minister Donald Tusk and some opposition presidential candidates have already said they would not take part in the May poll.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has sought to go ahead with the election amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic by proposing changes to the electoral code allowing for the vote to take place exclusively by post.

Critics, including human rights groups and election observers, say the legislative changes, which have still yet to be approved by parliament, have been rushed through and could stop the elections from being free or fair.

“The procedure of voting by post in this form and time, as is proposed by the ruling party, are pseudo-elections. We will not take part,” the leaders said in a joint statement.

“The Constitution allows for a state of emergency which would allow for moving the election term while maintaining political stability.”

Opinion polls show fewer than 30% of Poles are likely to cast ballots if the vote is held on May 10 as scheduled.

The head of the Supreme Court, a chamber of which could judge on the validity of the election, ended a six-year term on Thursday, opening the way for PiS to pick a supporter of its contested judiciary overhaul to replace her.

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World News

Beware the boar: wild pigs patrol Israeli city under coronavirus closure

HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) – While coronavirus closures are coaxing wildlife into the abandoned streets of many a metropolis, in one Israeli city the four-legged interlopers are assertive and, well, quite boorish.

Wild boars, some as bulky as Rottweilers and traveling in family packs, have been trotting through Haifa in increasing numbers. Their once-nocturnal visitations now take place throughout the day, as they root through refuse, spook domestic pets and even block roads.

The visitation, since nationwide lockdowns came into effect this month, has revived debate among residents of the hilly port city as to policy regarding the pests.

“We are scared to go out, even to throw out the garbage. I don’t which way the boars will come,” Meirav Litani, a music instructor, said as a boar loomed in the distance.

“They come here and turn over our garbage dumpsters … This is lack of protection. We actually feel defenseless.”

The municipality last year suspended culls of the boars, whose urban incursions, some experts say, are a response to human expansion into their natural habitat – the surrounding Carmel forest range, of biblical fame.

Less sympathetic city folk – especially religious Jews or Muslims who consider pigs ritually unclean – worry that the larger, tusked animals could turn violent.

For now, residents must turn to “pig patrols” made up of volunteer animal-rights activists who can be summoned at all hours to shoo the boars away.

“I’m scared that after the coronavirus passes, the boars will have gotten used to coming every day, every night, every hour,” said Yaron Hanan, 63, who runs a public campaign that has been calling for a municipal crackdown on the animals.

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Analysis & Comment

Blackstone invests $2 billion in Alnylam, boosting gene-silencing drug development

(Reuters) – Blackstone Group Inc said on Monday it invested $2 billion in Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc through an equity-and-debt deal, giving the drugmaker a financial boost to develop its gene-silencing therapies.

Alnylam, whose shares were nearly 7% higher in premarket trading, specializes in the development of medicines using the Nobel prize-winning RNA interference (RNAi) technology and earlier this month agreed to develop treatments for the new coronavirus with Vir Biotechnology Inc.

Blackstone said on Monday it purchased 50% of the royalties on global sales of Alnylam’s cholesterol therapy inclisiran, currently under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (reut.rs/3ckcTyF)

Inclisiran, belonging to a class of drugs that inhibit a protein known as PCSK9, was co-developed with The Medicines Co, which was bought by Novartis AG earlier this year.

The private equity firm said it would provide $1 billion in committed payments to Alnylam, a term loan of up to $750 million, and purchase $100 million of the drugmaker’s common stock.

Shares of Alnylam rose nearly 7% to $123.11 in premarket trading.

Alnylam was the first drugmaker to win U.S. approval for a treatment using the RNAi technology, which works by targeting and “silencing” specific genetic material, blocking the production of deadly proteins that cause diseases.

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World News

Brazil's Bolsonaro hits the streets in latest social distancing snub

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took to the streets of Brasilia on Friday, drawing crowds and greeting followers in his latest public attack on social isolation measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

Bolsonaro, 65, a far-right former army captain, says the isolation measures mandated by state governors and his own public health officials are an unnecessary drag on the economy. Bolsonaro’s popularity has fallen during the coronavirus crisis, with a growing number of Brazilians angered by his stance toward a disease he calls a “little cold.”

On Friday, a national holiday in Brazil, Bolsonaro went to a military hospital, before stopping at a pharmacy and then visiting one of his sons in a residential building, according to TV images and press reports.

At one of the stops, he was greeted by supporters who snapped photos and called his name. However, he was also subjected to criticism, with some Brasilia residents banging pots and pans in anger.

Critics say that Bolsonaro’s stance is chipping away at social distancing measures across Brazil. On Thursday, Reuters reported that lockdowns in Brazil’s largest cities to slow the coronavirus outbreak are beginning to slip.

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World News

Italian tenor Bocelli to offer Easter 'prayer' in empty Milan cathedral

MILAN (Reuters) – Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli will sing to a Milan cathedral bare of worshippers on Easter Sunday, hoping to bring together people isolated during the coronavirus lockdown in a livestreamed broadcast he said would not be a concert but a prayer.

Bocelli, one of the world’s most famous tenors, with a wide appeal outside the traditional opera world, said the Easter event would not be a concert in the normal sense.

“The Duomo will be completely empty. This, on its own, already makes the situation abnormal,” he told Reuters in an interview by Skype.

“But in this case, and I repeat, as this won’t be a concert and it won’t be a performance, it will be a prayer and as a consequence it will not be important who is present physically but rather who wants to be with me spiritually in that moment.”

Bocelli will be accompanied only by the cathedral organist, Emanuele Vianelli, playing one of world’s largest pipe organs and performing a repertoire of sacred works including Pietro Mascagni’s Sancta Maria.

The concert, organised at the invitation of the mayor of Milan and the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, the body that looks after the development and conservation of the cathedral, will be streamed on Bocelli’s YouTube channel at 1700 GMT on April 12.

Bocelli, whose personal foundation helps people struggling with poverty and illiteracy, said that, like everyone else, he was worried and uncertain about the future in a world turned on its head by the coronavirus.

“I’m not so worried about the present and I don’t feel that concerned about the virus per se but about what will happen next,” he said.

In a country like Italy, which already faced many economic difficulties before the major outbreak of the coronavirus in February, problems such as large scale unemployment were likely to get worse with business at a standstill.

“So, getting this country to bounce back will be a big problem. And we will have many people in difficulty. I hope I am wrong but I fear that’s how it will be,” he said.

“Certainly, we will all have to pitch in, each to his and her best ability, and we will need some wise and enlightened people to guide us, because if we don’t, it will be very difficult,” he said.

Bocelli said he had been asked by pop singer Lady Gaga to join other musicians joining livestreamed events to try to inspire a sense of hope.

“She called me and I couldn’t but reply ‘here I am, count me in’” he said.

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World News

Brazilians don't want Bolsonaro to resign amid coronavirus outbreak: poll

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Most Brazilians are against President Jair Bolsonaro’s potential resignation despite mounting criticism toward his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, according to a poll published by local newspaper Folha de S.Paulo on Sunday.

The survey conducted by Datafolha pollster between April 1-3 showed that 59% of the 1,151 respondents would oppose Bolsonaro’s resignation, while 37% would approve such move and 4% could not give an opinion. The margin of error was three percentage points, the newspaper said.

On Friday, the same pollster said Bolsonaro’s coronavirus performance has been “bad” or “awful” for 39% of respondents surveyed, up from 33% last month. Those who consider his response to the health crisis “good” or “great” slipped to 33% from 35%.

Brazil’s death toll rose to 431 from 359, while the number of confirmed cases jumped to 10,278 from 9,056, according to Health Ministry figures released on Saturday afternoon.

Bolsonaro has downplayed multiple times COVID-19 respiratory disease as a “little flu”, stirring up conflicts with governors and even his own health minister for advocating social-distancing measures which he sees as economically disastrous.

His insistence in fighting unemployment amid an unprecedented public health crisis is wearing him out politically, driving his approval rating to its lowest level since he took office last year in a conservative swing by Brazilian voters.

Playing on his evangelical supporters who have played a key role in his election, Bolsonaro called for a national day of fasting and prayer on Sunday to “free Brazil from this evil” epidemic.

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Politics

Commercial properties such as hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions need not pay property taxes for 2020 as part of Covid-19 aid

SINGAPORE – Owners of commercial properties that have been badly affected by the coronavirus outbreak will not need to pay property taxes for 2020.

Such properties include hotels, serviced apartments, tourist attractions, shops and restaurants, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament on Thursday (March 26) as he announced a Supplementary Budget to combat the worsening Covid-19 outbreak.

The move, which is a big step up from the 15 per cent to 30 per cent property tax rebates announced in last month’s Budget, is meant to help landlords with business costs during the economic downturn.

“Where the cost is within the Government’s control, we will do our best to help,” said Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister.

A property tax rebate of 30 per cent for 2020 will also be granted for all other non-residential properties, such as offices and industrial properties.

In announcing the $48 billion Supplementary Budget on Thursday, Mr Heng urged landlords to fully pass on the rebate to tenants, such as by reducing rentals to ease tenants’ cash flow and cost pressures.

“Many businesses have pointed out that it will be a lose-lose situation if landlords do not support their tenants. After all, if tenants fail, the properties will be empty.

“So my message to landlords is: Do your part, chip in, and give additional help to tenants who are more badly hit,” he said.

This comes after some tenants and associations pointed out that the earlier round of rebates were not passed on by their landlords.

The Restaurant Association of Singapore, for instance, said that not all food and beverage operators have seen the rental rebates promised by landlords.

Retail and food and beverage spaces were granted a 15 per cent rebate at the Budget statement last month. Properties such as hotels, serviced apartments and convention venues were given a rebate of 30 per cent.

In response, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said in Parliament earlier this month that while some landlords “have proactively gone out of their way to share the rebates”, others “are still taking a bit of time to roll out their packages”.

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