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Roundup: Maldives prepares for post COVID-19 tourism revival



As the Maldives prepares to re-open its borders to tourism in July amid an easing COVID-19 outbreak situation in the country, the Tourism Ministry has issued a 28-page guideline for restarting tourism outlining minimum standards to be followed by stakeholders including central government agencies, local governments, resorts, hotels, guest houses, tourist vessels and supporting businesses.

The guidelines, based on research, international best practice, case studies, and industry consultation, contain a host of recommendations and envisage a phased reopening of tourist facilities, with a tentative timeline of July 15 for re-opening facilities on uninhabited islands, and Aug. 1 for re-opening facilities on inhabited islands.

Standard preventive measures including wearing face masks, maintaining a distance of one meter, and hand washing or sanitizing are to be implemented at the airport, while arrivals are expected to have confirmed bookings and undergo temperature checks and screening.

Mandatory PCR tests will only be conducted on arrivals displaying symptoms such as coughing, runny nose, and shortness of breath, the cost of which must be borne by the tourists or their host facility. However, the government retains a provision to conduct random PCR testing of tourist arrivals at its own expense.

Arrivals who test positive will not be allowed to enter facilities on inhabited islands. Facilities on uninhabited islands may choose to host infected arrivals in isolation or transfer them to a government-run facility.

New standards stipulate that re-opened resorts must have suitable areas for self-isolation of guests and self-isolation of staff. Staff are to be trained in social distancing and disinfection measures, and resorts should be stocked with PPE.

Resorts are also expected to have medical officers who have undergone Health Protection Agency (HPA) certified training and must provide a health and safety plan to the Ministry of Tourism before being allowed to re-open.

The Ministry of Tourism has required workers arriving from overseas before July 15, or from islands currently under monitoring, to be quarantined for 14 days before being allowed to report for work.

Meanwhile, a circular sent to all tourism establishments by the Ministry of Tourism Senior Policy Director Mohamed Hassaan has “highly recommended all tourist facilities to re-hire the staff who were sent off.”

Urging establishments to rehire retrenched workers, the circular said “we believe it is the employees of the Maldives tourism sector who have one of the biggest shares in the success the Maldives has achieved so far.”

President Ibrahim Solih has said that the country expects to attract around 850,000 tourists this year though state revenue generated through the sector will likely be halved due to the cumulative effects of the pandemic.

Local media reports citing Minister of Tourism Ali Waheed as saying that over 70 out of some 150 resorts in the Maldives will be in operation by the time borders are re-opened in July. The remaining resorts will gradually be opened by October.

“Global pandemic COVID-19 had more of a socio-economic impact on the Maldives than the 2004 Asian Tsunami and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis,” Waheed has said.

Tourism constitutes a third of the Maldives’ national revenue, and the suspension of issuing visas on-arrival on March 27 marked the first time that arrivals dropped to zero since the tourism business began 47 years ago.

Maldives’ economy in 2020 is projected to contract by 8.1 percent according to the International Monetary Fund, while the World Bank estimated a contraction of 8.5 percent.

The Maldives currently has 2,336 confirmed cases of COVID-19, out of which 1,927 have fully recovered and eight have died. Around 65 percent of all confirmed cases are foreign citizens, mostly migrant workers.


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Roundup: Egypt sees return of foreign tourists after airports reopening




Egypt‘s Red Sea resort cities of Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh welcomed 297 tourists aboard two flights from Ukraine on Wednesday, after over three months of air traffic suspension over COVID-19 concerns in Egypt.

Upon arrival at the Hurghada Airport, the tourists were met with flowers, souvenirs, and folklore music and dancing.

Erini, a 34-year-old Ukrainian tourist with two children, told Xinhua that she was eagerly waiting for international flights’ resumption to visit Hurghada.

“I feel comfortable about the precautionary measures since I arrived in the airport, and all the workers in the tourism sector are very keen on our safety,” she added.

Hurghada Airport, which welcomed 167 tourists, has strictly applied coronavirus prevention measures for the passengers, including social distancing, Abu Taleb, Chairman of Tour Guides Syndicate of Red Sea, told Xinhua correspondent at the scene.

“The tourists have passed through thermal cameras to check their temperatures, and their luggage was disinfected,” Abu Taleb said, adding that the airport has installed six thermal cameras aimed at maintaining the safety of passengers.

Abu Taleb highlighted that “the return of tourists to Egypt indicated confidence in the precautionary measures that have encouraged the international tourism companies for cooperation.”

According to a statement issued by Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, “several other flights carrying tourists from Ukraine, Switzerland, and Belarus will arrive in the coming few days.”

The statement stressed that all the preventive measures put up at the airports, hotels, bazaars, and diving centers are provided in Arabic and English.

Over 400 hotels have received the operation safety certificates, the statement said, adding that each hotel is accommodated with one building for quarantine under the supervision of the Ministry of Health.

The hotels’ facilities are required to provide masks, sanitizers, and temperature tests to all guests. Some pools are closed and the elevators are limited to 50 percent capacity, the statement added.

Egypt has announced the gradual reopening and the resumption of tourism in the Red Sea, South Sinai, and Marsa Matrouh provinces.

The resumption of tourism has met by overwhelming joy of the workers in the tourism sector with its revenues hitting 13 billion United States dollars in 2019.

Besides airports, the North African country has also reopened the Egyptian museum and the famed Giza Pyramids in Cairo, Temple of Luxor, and Museum of Hurghada for the first time since the coronavirus closure in March.

The tourism industry, a key pillar of Egypt’s economic revenues and hard currency, had started to show signs of recovery after years of political turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled late president Hosni Mubarak. All recovery plans came to a halt with the suspension of international flights.

Egypt’s Minister of Planning and Economic Development Hala al-Saeed said in April that the tourism sector’s losses in 2020 could amount to 5 billion United States dollars.

Egypt’s Health Ministry has reported a total of 68,311 COVID-19 cases, including 2,953 fatalities.


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Roundup: United States treasury secretary, Fed chief differ about economic recovery amid COVID-19 resurgence




United States Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on Tuesday offered congressional lawmakers different views on how quickly the United States economy would recover from the COVID-19 pandemic amid the resurgence in cases in a number of states.

“We are in a strong position to recover because the Administration working with Congress on a bipartisan basis to pass legislation and provide liquidity to markets in record time,” Mnuchin said at a hearing held by the House Financial Services Committee.

“While the unemployment rate is still historically high, we are seeing additional signs that conditions will improve significantly in the third and fourth quarters of this year,” he said, adding the recovery has been uneven across industries.

“Certain industries such as construction are recovering quickly, while others such as retail and travel are facing longer impacts and may require additional relief,” said the treasury secretary.

Acknowledging that recent economic data offer some positive signs, Powell warned that the sooner-than-expected reopening of the United States economy has brought “new challenges” for the country.

“While this bounce back in economic activity is welcome, it also presents new challenges, notably the need to keep the virus in check,” Powell said at the same hearing, adding the path forward for the economy remains “extraordinarily uncertain” and will depend in large part on the success in containing the virus.

“A full recovery is unlikely to occur until people are confident that it’s safe to engage in a broad range of activities. The path forward will also depend on policy actions taken at all levels of government to provide relief and support the recovery for as long as needed,” he said.

The Fed chief also warned that a second outbreak of the virus could force governments and people to “withdraw again from economic activity.”

“I think the worst part of it would be to undermine the public confidence, which is what we need to get back to lots of kinds of economic activity that involves crowds,” said Powell.

More than 2.6 million COVID-19 cases have been reported in the United States with the fatalities surpassing 127,000 as of Tuesday afternoon, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday that COVID-19 cases in the United States could go up to 100,000 per day if the current trend “does not turn around.”

The outbreaks in various parts of the country put “the entire country at risk” and “clearly we don’t have this under control,” Fauci said at a Senate hearing.

United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar also said on Sunday that the “window is closing” for the country to curb the surge of COVID-19 cases.

Many United States states have either paused or partially reversed their staged reopening of the economy after reporting record increases in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

The United States economy contracted at an annual rate of 5 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to the Commerce Department. That figure, however, still does not fully capture COVID-19’s economic damage, and many analysts believe that the contraction in the second quarter is expected to be much deeper.

Powell has consistently urged Congress to consider further fiscal aid to households, companies, and state and local governments to prevent the recession from causing long-term damage to the economy.

Mnuchin said Tuesday that the administration looks forward to working with Congress in July on additional relief legislation to help certain industries weather the pandemic.

“We would anticipate that any additional relief would be targeting to certain industries that have been especially hard hit by the pandemic, with a focus on jobs and putting all Americans back to work who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” he said.

“Lawmakers are expected to settle on another fiscal rescue package in the next few weeks, and the price tag should be getting bigger with the new infections,” Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, wrote Monday in an analysis. “If they fail, the economy will almost surely contract again this fall.”


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Roundup: Democrats urge more information on Russian-Taliban bounties intelligence after WH briefing




United States House Democrats on Tuesday were disappointed with the White House briefing on Russian-Taliban bounties intelligence, calling for more information from the intelligence community.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who led a group of Democrats to the White House briefing early Tuesday, said the briefing had not provided them with any new substantial information about the intelligence.

“What we need is a briefing by the Intelligence community to give us their assessment of the credibility of this information,” Hoyer told reporters in a press conference in the Capitol.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who also attended the briefing, said at the press conference that “the right people were not in the room to give us the kind of briefing that we needed to get.”

United States media reported that the briefing was led by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, joined by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien as well as other National Security Council officials.

“We need to hear from the heads of the intelligence agencies about how they assess the allegations that have been made publicly,” Schiff said.

Hoyer also noted that he emphasized to Meadows that the White House briefing “was not a substitute for the speaker and minority leader of the Senate’s request for a full briefing of our members.”

In response, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said later in the day that “Democrats should come forward in good faith … the Democratic party politicizing this information, which I think is absolutely disgraceful.”

The Pentagon said in a statement late Monday that it had “no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports.”

“The Department of Defense continues to evaluate intelligence that Russian GRU operatives were engaged in malign activity against the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan,” said a statement.

The State Department said on Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had held a videoconference on Monday with Afghan Taliban’s political chief Mullah Baradar, in which he called on the Taliban to fulfill its commitments, including not attacking Americans.

The New York Times first reported last Friday that President Donald Trump had been briefed on the intelligence that Russian intelligence units secretly offered bounties to Taliban-related militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan during United States-Taliban peace talks.

The story also said the National Security Council discussed this issue at an interagency meeting in late March, while the White House thus far has not taken any actions to respond.

The Washington Post reported in a Sunday piece that Russian bounties offered to Taliban-linked militants were believed to have led to the deaths of several United States soldiers.

Trump said late Sunday that intelligence officials told him that this intelligence was not credible and thus he was not briefed.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and the death toll of United States service members has surpassed 2,400 in this longest war in United States history. Trump has long complained about the endlessness of the war and sought a full withdrawal from the Central Asian country.

The United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal in late February, in which Washington said it would reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 within 135 days. The agreement also called for the full withdrawal of the United States military by May 2021 if the Taliban meets the conditions of the deal, including severing ties with terrorist groups.

Commander of United States Central Command Kenneth McKenzie said earlier this month that the United States military had reduced its troops level to 8,600 in Afghanistan, fulfilling its first phased pullout obligation under the United States-Taliban deal.


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Roundup: IMF revises down forecast for Asian economy, warns of “clouds on the horizon”




The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Tuesday revised down its forecast for the Asian economy amid the mounting COVID-19 fallout, projecting a 1.6-percent contraction in 2020, and warning of “clouds on the horizon.”

The latest projection is a downgrade to the forecast of zero growth in the April World Economic Outlook (WEO), indicating stronger global headwinds as the pandemic‘s impacts continue to ripple throughout the world.

“Projections for 2020 have been revised down for most of the countries in the (Asian) region due to weaker global conditions and more protracted containment measures in several emerging economies,” Chang Yong Rhee, director of the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department, wrote in a blog post.

Rhee noted that Asia’s economic growth in the first quarter of 2020 was better than previously projected, partly owing to early stabilization of the virus in some countries.

In the absence of a second wave of infections and with an unprecedented policy stimulus to support the recovery, growth in Asia is projected to rebound strongly to 6.6 percent in 2021, according to Rhee.

“But even with this fast pickup in economic activity, output losses due to COVID-19 are likely to persist,” he wrote.

According to an update to April WEO released last week, the IMF revised down its forecast for the global economy, projecting a 4.9-percent contraction in 2020, 1.9 percentage points below the April forecast, followed by a growth of 5.4 percent in 2021.

“The downgrade from April reflects worse than anticipated outcomes in the first half of this year, an expectation of more persistent social distancing into the second half of this year, and damage to supply potential,” IMF Chief Economist Gita Gopinath said in a virtual news conference.

Advanced economies are projected to contract 8 percent this year, and emerging markets and developing economies are projected to shrink by 3 percent this year, according to the updated report.

China is expected to grow by 1 percent, the only major economy that could see growth this year, followed by an 8.2-percent growth in 2021.

The IMF projects Asia’s economic output in 2022 to be about 5 percent lower compared with the level predicted before the crisis, and this gap “will be much larger” if China is excluded, where economic activities have already started to rebound, Rhee said.

The IMF official also noted that projections for 2021 and beyond assume a strong rebound in private demand, though there are “clouds on the horizon,” which could undermine Asia’s recovery.

Such “clouds” include slower growth in trade, longer than expected lockdowns, rising inequality, weak balance sheets and geopolitical tensions.

“Asia is heavily dependent on global supply chains and cannot grow while the whole world is suffering,” Rhee said. “Asia’s trade is expected to contract significantly due to weaker external demand.”

He added that reorienting Asia’s growth model toward domestic demand and away from a heavy reliance on exports has begun but will take more time to be completed.

Noting that not all recent developments have been negative, Rhee said many Asian countries have been able to provide significant monetary and fiscal policy support — often in the form of guarantees and loans to households and firms.

Additionally, lower oil prices and improved market sentiment and financial conditions are helping the recovery, he said, adding that these factors “may not last.”

“Asian countries are experimenting re-opening, and policies must be geared toward supporting the nascent recovery without exacerbating vulnerabilities,” the IMF official said. “They must use fiscal stimulus wisely and complement it with economic reforms.”

The priorities, he argued, include close coordination between monetary and fiscal policies, ensuring resources are reallocated appropriately, as well as addressing inequalities.

Inequality had already been rising in Asia, Rhee said, noting that IMF’s recent research shows how past pandemics led to higher income inequality and hurt employment prospects of those with limited education.

“These effects are likely to be exacerbated in Asia due to the large proportion of informal workers, making the recovery more protracted,” he said.

The IMF officials urged Asian policymakers to broaden access to health and basic services, finance, and the digital economy, and expand social safety nets to extend unemployment insurance coverage to informal workers.

Addressing pervasive informality will also require comprehensive labor and product market reforms to improve the business environment and removing onerous legal and regulatory obstacles (especially for startups), and policies to rationale the tax system, he added.


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Roundup: COVID-19 cases level off in Canada as they surge in United States




As far as the reopening of businesses and bars is concerned, Canada has been better than the United States at slowing the spread of COVID-19 through physical distancing and people increasingly wearing face masks in public, the latest update from Canada’s Public Health Agency suggests.

“As the epidemic has slowed, the incident rate has steadily declined in all age groups,” Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said at a briefing here. “The epidemiology indicates the transmission is largely under control.”

Canada has had just under 104,000 cases of COVID-19 with over 8,500 deaths to date.

By contrast, 41,075 new cases were reported in the United States on Monday, bringing its national total to more than 2.5 million — nearly a quarter of the global total of 10.4 million.

The coronavirus disease has also claimed the lives of over 126,000 people in the United States, with 885 new fatalities reported on Monday alone.

The Canada-United States border, closed to non-essential travel since March 21, is scheduled to reopen on July 21. But at his regular COVID-related news conference on Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted that could be halted.

“We will continue to assess the situation and work with the Americans on what steps need to be taken in the month of August,” he said.

“What the situation we’re seeing in the United States and elsewhere highlights for us is that, even as our economy is reopening, we need to make sure we are continuing to remain vigilant individually and collectively,” he said.

However, with the return of in-store shopping and greater numbers of people gathering, the demographic picture of the pandemic in Canada has changed.

People 80 years of age and older remain the hardest-hit population, accounting for nearly 18,000 cases. Seniors living in long-term care and retirement homes also represent the greatest human toll taken by COVID-19, with 20,604 cases and 6,920 deaths across Canada as of Friday.

Yet the 80-plus crowd has experienced the steepest decline in transmission since late May, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which reported a relative increase in cases among people between the ages of 20 and 39, who “now account for a greater proportion of total cases in recent weeks,” said Tam.

New modeling numbers released by the Public Health Agency on Monday forecast a slight uptick in both cumulative cases of COVID-19 (as high as 108,130) and deaths (as many as 8,865) in Canada by July 12.


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Roundup: United States Texas businesses urged to follow orders amid soaring COVID-19 cases




United States state of Texas added nearly 4,300 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, and officials of Houston, the state’s largest city and the epicenter of the pandemic, put three businesses on the “Wall of Shame”.

According to Texas Health and Human Services, as of Monday there are 153,011 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, 4,283 more cases than that of Sunday. The death toll reached 2,403.

As the pandemic continues to spread in the state, Houston has reported over 20,000 confirmed cases as of Monday.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that three businesses had been put on the “Wall of Shame” as they refused to close according to the governor’s order.

Turner made the announcement during the Monday afternoon news conference. Last Friday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars to shut down due to their link with recent rise in the state’s positive COVID-19 cases.

“I want to thank those bars who adhered to Governor Abbott’s order to shut down,” said Turner. “Unfortunately, not all businesses complied. I don’t want to put any businesses on the wall of shame but I will be placing three of them up on there.”

Local media reported that the city’s positivity rate jumped from 3 percent to 11 percent last week, with the hospitalization rates and ICU numbers both increased.

During the news conference, Houston Police Department also announced there are 190 officers in quarantine at this time after 140 tested positive for the coronavirus.

Meanwhile Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas, is closing all its schools as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to spike.

HISD released a statement on Monday, announcing it is restricting access to all district schools and facilities, starting July 3 until Sunday, July 19. All student athletics workouts and practices are also canceled.

“These new measures are imperative for the health and safety of our students and staff,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “Every decision we make has them in mind. I urge you all to please be safe in the coming weeks – stay home when you can, wash your hands, and wear a mask if you must go out.”

The district continues to operate virtually and will continue to provide educational and related services, according to the release.

HISD students will be allowed to keep its district-issued laptops until the fall rather than bringing them back to campus, which the district says eliminates the need to bring additional staff and families on site.

Employees reporting to a location as a part of their jobs will continue to practice social distancing and wear appropriate personal protective equipment.

The district said most HISD employees have been working from home since the district announced its building closures in March, but some staff have been allowed to re-enter and complete necessary duties.


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Roundup: Sudanese capital Khartoum on high alert ahead of mass demonstrations




On the eve of mass demonstrations expected on Tuesday, Sudanese capital Khartoum is witnessing unprecedented security measures.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok urged the participants in Tuesday’s demonstrations to exercise maximum alert and follow the health instructions and guidelines to prevent further spread of coronavirus.

“I’m fully confident in the vigilance of the revolutionaries and their adherence to the weapon of peacefulness with which the revolution has triumphed over the forces of dark,” said Hamdok in a speech to the Sudanese people on Monday.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of Tuesday’s demonstrations, the Sudanese government on Monday announced the arrest of leaders belonging to the former regime over planning for hostile moves.

“According to reliable information about a meeting for leaders belonging to the dissolved National Congress Party and the Islamic Movement, a joint team of the military intelligence and the General Intelligence Service raided the meeting site and arrested the group participating in the meeting,” said a statement by the office of Sudan‘s Information Minister Faisal Mohamed Saleh.

The Public Prosecution is undertaking the investigation procedures with the defendants prior to presenting them to the judiciary, according to the statement.

The Sudanese authorities on Monday tightened the security measures around the army’s general command and main headquarters such as the Republican Palace and the Council of Ministers.

Additionally, security forces have been deployed on the bridges linking Khartoum, Omdurman and Khartoum North after Khartoum State authorities on Sunday decided to fully close all bridges on June 29 and 30.

Various parties have called for demonstrations on Tuesday. Some called for a demonstration to correct the path of the revolution, while supporters of the former regime called for a similar demonstration on the same day to demand the overthrow of Hamdok’s government.

According to Sudanese media, quoting security sources, there are reports indicating plots to carry out assassinations, chaos and sabotage acts during the June 30 demonstrations to speed up removal of the transitional government, led by Hamdok.

Since August 2019, a military and civilian coalition has been in power in Sudan for a transitional period of 39 months, after a popular revolution that ousted the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir on April 11 last year.


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Roundup: Exit polls show Greens make big success, ruling centrists on back foot in local run-off




With a record low turnout, French voters on Sunday credited the country’s environmentalists to manage their local affairs in the final round of municipal elections, while President Emmanuel Macron‘s centrist party The Republic on the Move (LERM) failed to gain a strong foothold at local level.

Exit polls showed that the European Ecologists and the Greens (EELV) recorded a strong performance. They claimed victory in cities including Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Poitiers, Besancon, Annecy, Bastia and Tours.

Traditionally, one of bastions of the Republicans party, Marseille, France‘s second largest city, switched to the left wing. The environmentalist Michele Rubirola, who headed a left-wing coalition, was seen winning the vote with nearly 40 percent, 10 percentage points ahead of her conservative rival Martine Vassal, according to Ipsos/Sopra Steria.

“What has won tonight is the desire for a concrete ecology, an ecology in action. It is a turning point in the political life of the country. It is the moment of ecology,” Yannick Jadot, leader of the French greens told France 2 television.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right party seized the control of Perpignan in the south, its first takeover of a city of over 100,000 inhabitants since 1995.

The anti-immigrant and protectionist party’s candidate Louis Aliot, was seen collecting 52.7 percent of the vote versus 47.3 percent for the sitting conservative mayor.

“The first message this evening is that this so-called Republican front fell in Perpignan, and tomorrow it could fall elsewhere. (The victory) is a great message for the future,” Alliot told supporters.

Exit polls suggested that Macron’s party, founded by him ahead of his 2017 election, could emerge from the local contest without winning a major city, a severe blow to the president’s plan to build a local power base ahead of 2022 presidential election.

Incumbent socialist Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo topped the vote with 49.3 percent, sending the president’s candidate Agnes Buzyn, former health minister, into a distant third place.

It wasn’t all bad for the head of state. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe won the race in northern port city of Le Havre with 58.83 percent of the vote.

Holding two executive posts is allowed under French law. But the prime minister’s mayoral victory raised questions over a possible government reshuffle, reported French media.

Citing a source close to the Elysee, France info radio reported that Macron has congratulated Philippe for the “beautiful victory” and the two men would meet on Monday morning.

The president also “expresses concern about the low turnout in municipal elections,” which he said “is not very good news for the country’s democracy.”

The turnout of Sunday’s round slumped to a record low level of 34.67 percent at 17:00 local time (1500 GMT), according to the Ministry of Interior. In 2014 local polls, 52.36 percent of eligible voters had voted.

Previously scheduled for March 22, the voting took place after the government started a gradual exit in mid-May from months-long restrictions in response to the spread of COVID-19.

On March 15 when the first round was held, 44.66 percent of some 47.7 million voters shunned the voting.


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Roundup: Trump denies being briefed on alleged Russian-Taliban bounties intelligence




United States President Donald Trump said on Sunday that he was never briefed on intelligence that Russians offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing United States troops.

“Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an ‘anonymous source’ by the Fake News @nytimes,” Trump tweeted Sunday morning.

“Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attack on us,” he added.

Casualty records, however, showed that the year of 2019 was the deadliest year for United States service members in Afghanistan since 2014, with 22 American troops killed.

Trump’s tweets echoed the White House Saturday statement on this matter, in which Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said several senior officials had confirmed that neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence was briefed on the intelligence.

McEnany also noted that the statement “does not speak to the merit of the alleged intelligence but to the inaccuracy of the New York Times story erroneously suggesting that President Trump was briefed on this matter.”

The New York Times reported Friday that Trump had been briefed on the intelligence that Russian intelligence units secretly offered bounties to Taliban-related militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan during United States-Taliban peace talks.

The story also said the National Security Council discussed this issue at an interagency meeting in late March, while the White House thus far has not taken any actions to respond.

Democrats and former officials cited the story as fresh evidence of Trump’s disqualification as the president.

Former Vice President and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden Saturday criticized Trump’s failure to punish Russia as “a betrayal of the most sacred duty.”

Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton Sunday said in an interview with CNN that Trump’s morning tweet indicated “his fundamental focus is not the security of our forces … he’s saying well nobody told me therefore you can’t blame me.”

Others doubted the theory that Trump had not been briefed on this matter. “I have trouble believing it, but as someone who got the presidential daily briefing for more than 7 years the idea that a POTUS wouldn’t be briefed on a Russian bounty on US troops is even more alarming,” tweeted Ben Rhodes, who served as deputy national security advisor in Obama administration.

In a Sunday interview with ABC, United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also expressed concern that some officials may have avoided bringing the issues to the president.

“We’ll find out he has briefed and it was in his daily brief, but if it were not, what does that say about the concern that those who briefed the president have about not going anywhere near the Russia issue with this president?” she said.

“Something is very wrong here, but this must have an answer,” she added.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and the death toll of United States service members has surpassed 2,400 in this longest war in United States history.

Trump has long complained about the endlessness of the war and sought a full withdrawal from the Central Asian country. In the agreement signed in late February between the United States and the Taliban, Washington said it would reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 within 135 days. The agreement also called for the full withdrawal of the United States military by May 2021 if the Taliban meets the conditions of the deal, including severing ties with terrorist groups.

Commander of United States Central Command Kenneth McKenzie said earlier this month that the United States military had reduced its troops level to 8,600 in Afghanistan, fulfilling its first phased pullout obligation under the United States-Taliban deal.


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