Coronavirus World News: U.S. Blames China for Fake Warnings of a Lockdown

Fake text messages said Trump was locking down America. Officials blame Chinese agents.

The alarming messages came fast and furious in mid-March, popping up on the phone screens and social media feeds of millions of Americans grappling with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Spread the word, the messages said: The Trump administration was about to lock down the entire country.

“They will announce this as soon as they have troops in place to help prevent looters and rioters,” warned one of the messages, which cited a source in the Department of Homeland Security. “He said he got the call last night and was told to pack and be prepared for the call today with his dispatch orders.”

Since that wave of panic, United States intelligence agencies have assessed that Chinese operatives helped push the messages across platforms, according to six American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to publicly discuss intelligence matters. The amplification techniques are alarming to officials because the disinformation showed up as texts on many Americans’ cellphones, a tactic that several of the officials said they had not seen before.

That has spurred agencies to look at new ways in which China, Russia and other nations are using a range of platforms to spread disinformation during the pandemic, they said.

Last week, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe announced that factories would reopen at reduced capacity, a rare bit of encouraging news for a nation that has been lashed by deadly hurricanes, a cholera outbreak and a horrific earthquake in just the past decade.

But with Haitian workers returning from the Dominican Republic — which has been hit hard by Covid-19 — the odds are stacked against the country and its weak health care system.

Most Haitians lack access to clean water, let alone soap, and many live in tightly packed slums where social distancing is impossible. The nation’s health care system is so threadbare that Haitians regularly die of easily treatable ailments like diarrhea.

Doctors estimate that the country will need 6,000 beds dedicated to Covid-19 patients. But the plan, which requires trained staff, personal protective equipment, as well as oxygen, is costly.

More than half of the population in Haiti lives hand-to-mouth, earning less than $2.41 per day, according to the World Bank. Experts say Haiti’s current low number of infections partly reflects the country’s dysfunction. Kidnappings have become so chronic that the United States issued a “do not travel” warning in early March.

But over recent weeks, thousands of Haitians have flooded back home each day from the Dominican Republic. Doctors have been screening at four official border checkpoints, but not at dozens of illegal crossings.

Watching the virus spread in the Dominican Republic next door, doctors worry an outbreak in Haiti would become comparable to the cholera epidemic that, starting in 2010, ripped through Haiti’s slums and tent camps, infecting more than 820,000.

President Trump on Wednesday said that he disagreed “strongly” with the Georgia governor’s decision to allow barbershops, nail salons and other businesses in the state to reopen this week.

“I think it’s too soon,” he said at a White House briefing.

Mr. Trump also said that the coronavirus “won’t be coming back in the form that it was” this fall or winter, then mused that it might not come back at all. But the government scientists flanking him at the White House news briefing explicitly disagreed with his predictions.

“There will be coronavirus in the fall,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert.

Here’s what else is happening in the U.S.:

  • California’s quest to retrace the early steps of the coronavirus entered a new phase Wednesday after officials linked the death of a 57-year-old woman in early February to the virus, placing it weeks before any other known death in the United States.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that Covid-19 could wreak havoc on the country anew next winter, with another wave coinciding with seasonal flu.

  • Rick Bright, the doctor who led the federal agency involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine said that he had been removed from his post. Dr. Bright, who had pressed for rigorous vetting of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug embraced by President Trump as a coronavirus treatment, accused the administration of putting “politics and cronyism ahead of science.”

  • President Trump signed an executive order imposing a 60-day halt in issuing green cards with numerous exemptions, including those for overseas spouses, guest workers and young children of American citizens.

  • The Education Department will prohibit colleges from granting emergency assistance to undocumented students, even those currently under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

For decades, the oil rigs rising out of the North Sea off Scotland provided Britain with hundreds of thousands of jobs in a thriving industry and billions in tax revenue.

Much of that now seems a memory. The collapse in oil prices from the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with infections aboard the drilling rigs, are imperiling the vast industry that sprawls across the waters off Scotland and Norway.

Oil companies are shelving investments worth billions of dollars. Staffing on the rigs has been cut, partly to reduce costs but also to provide some degree of social distancing on the often crowded platforms, putting those jobs at risk. At least two offshore workers have tested positive for coronavirus.

“We have gone through commodity swings and cycles of that nature, but this one is different,” said Jim House, chief executive of Neptune Energy, a private equity-backed oil and gas firm with production in both British and Norwegian waters. “We have never seen a world completely shut down,” he added.

More important, though, may be the impact on the future of the North Sea oil and gas industry. Its health depends on finding new undersea fields and bringing them into production, but if prices remain low, as some analysts think likely, that won’t happen.

The price of Brent crude, which was named for a North Sea oil field, has fallen by about 70 percent this year to just over $20 a barrel. Another type of crude, West Texas intermediate, shocked the industry when it fell into a negative price earlier this week.

These social media challenges are helping to keep boredom at bay.

With the coronavirus continuing to upend familiar rhythms of life, leaving schools shuttered, millions out of work and billions stuck at home, those looking for ways to pass the time are turning to social media challenges.

Some bring together families for choreographed dance routines while others spark the inner artist or unlock hidden engineering skills. All of them hold the promise of warding off boredom and — maybe — earning users a moment of online celebrity.

The #FliptheSwitch challenge began last month, when the lyrics “I just flipped the switch” from the Drake song “Nonstop” inspired a viral challenge on TikTok that eventually made its way to Instagram. People began swapping clothes, poses and sometimes attitudes when the lights are switched off and then back on.

Reporting was contributed by Edward Wong, Matthew Rosenberg, Julian E. Barnes, Dan Levin, Vivian Wang, Ron DePasquale, Katrin Bennhold, Steven Kurutz, Derrick Bryson Taylor and Stanley Reed.

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