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US surpasses China for highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the world | World news

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Donald Trump again struggled to reassure a fearful nation on Thursday as it emerged the US now has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world.

News that America had surpassed virus hotspots China and Italy with 82,404 cases of infection, according to a tracker run by Johns Hopkins University, broke as the president was holding a press conference at the White House.

His instinctive response was to question other countries’ statistics. “It’s a tribute to the amount of testing that we’re doing,” Trump told reporters. “We’re doing tremendous testing, and I’m sure you’re not able to tell what China is testing or not testing. I think that’s a little hard.”

While the US has increased its testing capacity in recents days the process has been flawed and incoherent, and the country still lags behind leaders such as South Korea in terms of the number of tests administered per-capita.

On a grim day, the death toll in America surpassed 1,000 and it was revealed that last week 3.3 million people filed for unemployment – the biggest single-week jump in history. The president has been widely condemned for failing to act fast enough, misjudging the public mood and seeking to blame others rather than taking personal responsibility.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” Trump said of the jobless figure. “Certainly not in this country. Nobody’s fault. We got very lucky when we made a decision not to allow people in from China on a very early date. I say that because some people don’t want to accept it, but this was a great decision made by our country, or the numbers that you’re talking about – we’re a big country – they’d be far greater, far bigger.”

He added: “I heard it could be six million, could be seven million. It’s 3.3 or 3.2, but it’s a lot of jobs, but I think we’ll come back very strong. The sooner we get back to work – you know, every day we stay out it gets harder to bring it back very quickly, and our people don’t want to stay out … I think you’ll see a very fast turnaround once we have a victory over the hidden enemy.”

Trump told the briefing that dates for reopening sections of the country were under discussion but he notably did not refer to Easter – 12 April – as he has been pushing in recent days.

Critics have long accused him of lacking compassion, pointing to examples such as when, in 2017, he lobbed paper towels at hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico. On Thursday he was asked about the thousands of restaurants going out of business, causing personal devastation to owners and staff.

“I understand the restaurant business,” he claimed, describing it as “very delicate”. He went on: “You can serve 30 great meals to a person and a family … one bad meal, 31, and they never come back again. It’s a very tough business.”

He added: “It may not be the same restaurant, it may not be the same ownership, but they’ll all be back.”

Even as New York hospitals become overwhelmed, with doctors complaining of nightmarish conditions, and cases spike in cities such as New Orleans, Trump continued to talk down the threat from the virus. “Many people have it. I just spoke to two people that had it. They never went to a doctor, they didn’t report it … The people that actually die, that percentage is much lower than I actually thought.”

He added, “The mortality rate, in my opinion, is way down,” even though experts have warned that this is likely to worsen in the coming weeks.

In a tone that again seemed at odds with the gravity of the situation, Trump asked a reporter from Bloomberg News, “How’s Michael doing, good?” – a reference to the failed presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg – and dismissed a state governor who took part in a conference call as a “wise guy”.

He also said he will speak by phone with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping later on Thursday, claiming they have a “very good relationship”. The president has repeatedly used the phrase “Chinese virus”, angering some in that country.

“No, it came from China,” he said, but he added, “if they feel so strongly about it, we’ll see.”

Vice-president Mike Pence and Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, also sought to calm fears about a shortage of ventilators, despite media reports to the contrary.

Birx said of New York: “To wake up this morning and look at people talking about creating DNR situations, Do-Not-Resuscitate situations for patients – there is no situation in the United States right now that warrants that kind of discussion.”

There was some silver lining for Trump on Thursday as stocks rallied on Wall Street for that day after a historic $2tn economic rescue package won passage in the Senate. The plan, which is expected to be voted on in the House of Representatives on Friday, would distribute $1,200 per adult and $500 per child.

Joe Biden, the front runner in the Democratic presidential race, said: “The president is not responsible for the coronavirus, but he bears full responsibility for the slow and uncoordinated response that has exacerbated both the public health and economic impact on our country. The harsh reality is that at least 3 million people now don’t have jobs because our president didn’t do his job when it mattered.”

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South China Sea dispute: China’s pursuit of resources ‘unlawful’, says US

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A satellite image of Subi Reef, an artificial island being developed by China in the Spratly Islands in the South China SeaImage copyright
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The US has previously accused China of militarising the South China Sea (file photo)

China’s pursuit of offshore resources in parts of the South China Sea is “completely unlawful”, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said.

Mr Pompeo said he wanted to make clear that Beijing’s “campaign of bullying to control” the disputed waters was wrong.

China said that the US “deliberately distorts facts and international law”.

China has been building military bases on artificial islands in the region also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The countries have wrangled over territory in the South China Sea for centuries, but tension has steadily increased in recent years.

Beijing claims an area known as the “nine-dash line” and has backed its claim with island-building and patrols, expanding its military presence there.

Although largely uninhabited, two island chains in the area may have reserves of natural resources around them. The sea is also a shipping route and has major fishing grounds.

In its annual defence review, Japan said China’s naval activities are a matter of grave concern, accusing Beijing of attempting to alter the status quo in the East and South China Seas.

What did Mr Pompeo say?

In a statement on Monday, Mr Pompeo denounced China’s claims on the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, saying Beijing had “no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region”.

He said the US, which has previously said it does not take sides in territorial disputes, rejected Beijing’s claims to waters off Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“Any [People’s Republic of China] action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful,” he said.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.”

How did China respond?

In a statement posted on Twitter, the Chinese embassy in Washington DC said the US state department “deliberately distorts the facts and international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.

It said America “exaggerates the situation in the region and attempts to sow discord between China and other littoral countries.

“The accusation is completely unjustified. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to it.”


Significant risks with seemingly insignificant islands

Zhaoyin Feng, BBC Chinese, Washington DC

Before now, the US had not taken sides on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Four years after an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that China’s claims in the region have no legal basis, the US has for the first time officially made its stance clear. But why now?

Last week, China and the US held naval exercises in the area at the same time – a rare phenomenon indicating rising tensions.

In the bigger context, the Trump administration has pledged to overturn what it says is 40 years of policy failure with regard to China. Washington has recently criticised Beijing on issues ranging from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, to human rights violations against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and how it has dealt with pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

But it was China’s land reclamation projects in the South China Sea that prompted the rest of the world to reassess Beijing’s international ambitions.

And the stakes in the region are incredibly high. In these seemingly insignificant island chains and reefs, there are growing risks of military conflict between the world’s two most powerful countries.


Mr Pompeo said the US stood “with our South-East Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources,” adding that this position was “consistent with their rights and obligations under international law”.

What’s behind the South China Sea dispute?

The sea, home to vital shipping lanes, has in recent years become a flashpoint for tensions between China and other nations which claim sovereignty over two largely uninhabited island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys.

China claims the largest portion of territory, saying its rights go back centuries. The area is rich for fishing and is thought to have abundant oil and gas reserves.

The US has long been critical of what it says is China’s militarisation of the region and routinely angers Beijing with “freedom of navigation” missions.

In August 2018, a BBC team flew over the disputed South China Sea islands in a US military plane. In a radio communication, the pilots were warned to leave the area “immediately” in order to “avoid any misunderstanding”.

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Media captionA BBC team flew over the disputed South China Sea islands in a US military plane in 2018

Months earlier, China landed bombers in the disputed territory to take part in drills on islands and reefs.

China has previously accused the US Navy of provocation and interference in regional matters.



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Phone of top Catalan politician ‘targeted by government-grade spyware’ | World news

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One of Catalonia’s most senior politicians has been warned his mobile phone was targeted using spyware its makers say is only sold to governments to track criminals and terrorists.

A joint investigation by the Guardian and El País has revealed that the speaker of the Catalan regional parliament, Roger Torrent and at least two other pro-independence supporters were told they were targeted last year in what experts said was a “possible case of domestic political espionage” in Europe.

According to a US lawsuit, the spyware exploited a previous vulnerability in WhatsApp software that would have given the operator potential access to everything on the target’s mobile phone – including emails, text messages and photographs. It could also have turned on the phone’s recorder and camera, turning it into a listening device.

Torrent, who was warned about the targeting by researchers working with WhatsApp, said it seemed clear the “Spanish state” was behind the alleged attack on his phone, and that he believed it had most likely occurred without any judicial authority.

Do you have information about this story? Email stephanie.kirchgaessner@theguardian.com, or (using a non-work phone) use Signal or WhatsApp to message +1 646 886 8761.

WhatsApp believes the attacks occurred over a two week period in April to May 2019, when a total of 1,400 of its users were allegedly targeted by the ‘Pegasus’ spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group.

The popular messaging app claims more than 100 members of civil society, including journalists in India, human rights activists in Morocco, diplomats, and senior government officials, are alleged to have been affected.

WhatsApp has launched a lawsuit against NSO Group in the US. NSO Group insists its spyware is only sold to government clients for the purpose of tracking down terrorists and other criminals.

It has said it has no independent knowledge of how those clients, which in the past have reportedly included Saudi Arabia and Mexico, use its hacking software.

Until now, it has not been suggested that any European country used NSO Group’s software in the 2019 attacks. But in an interview, Torrent expressed dismay that he may have been surveilled by the Spanish state.

“It seems wrong that politicians are being spied on in a democracy with the rule of law,” Torrent said. “It also seems to me to be immoral for a huge amount of public money to be spent on buying software that can be used as a tool for the persecution of political dissidents.”

WhatsApp



WhatsApp has launched a lawsuit against NSO Group in the US. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Guardian and El País contacted several Spanish authorities for comment.

Spain’s National Intelligence Centre (CNI) said in a statement that it acts “in full accordance with the legal system, and with absolute respect for the applicable laws” and that its work is overseen by Spain’s supreme court. It did not respond to specific questions about the alleged use of NSO Group spyware.

In addition to Torrent, researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto Munk School – who collaborated with WhatsApp after the alleged hacking attempts were discovered – alerted two other pro-independence individuals last year that they had been targeted.

One, Anna Gabriel, is a former regional MP for the far-left, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), who is currently living in Switzerland after fleeing Spain because of her alleged involvement in organising the illegal Catalan referendum.

Her lawyer said in a statement that Gabriel received notice last year from Citizen Lab that her phone had been targeted.

Another target, Jordi Domingo, received a notice from WhatsApp that his phone had been targeted. Although Domingo is an activist who supports Catalan independence, he said in an interview that he did not consider himself to be a key figure and that he believed the true target of the attempted hack may have been a prominent lawyer who shares his name and helped to draft the Catalan constitution.

In a statement, the Spanish prime minister’s office said: “The government has no evidence that the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent, the former MP Anna Gabriel and the activist Jordi Domingo have been the targets of hacking via their mobiles.

“Furthermore, we must state that any operation involving a mobile phone is always conducted in accordance with the relevant judicial authorisation.”

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab who has closely monitored the use of NSO Group’s spyware and collaborated with WhatsApp to engage members of civil society targeted by the the 2019 attack, confirmed – with Torrent’s permission – that Torrent had been targeted using NSO’s spyware.

“Given the nature of this attack and the limited information collected by WhatsApp on its users, we can confirm that the telephone was targeted. However, additional investigation would be necessary to confirm that the phone was hacked. At this time we have no reason to believe that it wasn’t,” Scott-Railton said in an interview.

He added: “This case is extremely troubling because it suggests that possible domestic political espionage was taking place. And certainly we look forward to continuing to investigate the targeting that happened in Spain.”

In US court filings in response to claims by WhatsApp, NSO Group has denied allegations that it bore any responsibility in the targeting of individuals and said it did not operate the technology itself.

“Government customers do that, making all decisions about how to use the technology,” NSO said in its legal filing. “If anyone installed Pegasus on any alleged “target devices” it was not [the] defendants [NSO Group]. It would have been an agency of a sovereign government.”

Placard of Anna Gabriel



A placard depicting exiled pro-independence supporter Anna Gabriel, next to a banner reading ‘free all’. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Asked to comment on this story, NSO Group said it operated under “industry leading governance policies” and that it could not confirm or deny which authorities use its technology because of confidentiality constraints.

“Once again speculative comments from CitizenLab only serve to highlight its continued, naive and ulterior agenda which fails to competently address the challenges faced by law enforcement agencies,” an NSO Group spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added: “We do however appreciate your bringing this issue to our attention. In line with our human rights policy we take our responsibilities seriously and if warranted, will initiate an investigation.”

The news is expected to send shockwaves across Spain and the European Union, and will raise questions about whether the spyware was deployed legally against a senior political leader.

Torrent said he would seek an investigation. He also confirmed that he observed “suspicious behaviour” on his mobile phone in 2019 and earlier, including the disappearance of WhatsApp messages. Citizen Lab said in a memo to Torrent that this suspicious activity suggested his phone had been successfully infected.

“It’s a pretty serious matter for everyone; any democrat should feel very uncomfortable over news like this,” Torrent said, adding that one of the most progressive government in Spain’s history needed to ask itself “whether this case will serve to put an end to the dirty war”.

Mathias Vermeulen, a Brussels-based public policy director of AWO, a new data rights agency, said the story would resonate in Brussels, where privacy has been at the centre of the policy agenda for a decade.

“While there is quite some hesitation from the European institutions and member states to get involved in domestic struggles over political power, if these allegations point in the direction of the Spanish state, then I think we are entering a whole new level of controversy within Brussels,” he said.

“Some member states with a more authoritarian past – like Germany – are sensitive to any allegations of surveillance of political opponents. It brings back some of the darker periods of Europe’s history.”

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Live Coronavirus Updates: 17 States Sue Trump Administration

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On ABC’s “This Week,” Adm. Brett Giroir, an official with Health and Human Services, acknowledged that with “more cases, more hospitalizations,” the expectation was for “deaths to go up” over the next several weeks. “It’s really essential to wear masks,” he said, adding: “We have to have like 90 percent of people wearing the masks in public in the hot spot areas. If we don’t have that we will not get control of the virus.”

The host, George Stephanopoulos, asked about suggestions by Mr. Trump — who after months of refusing, donned a mask on Saturday during a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — that there could be some harm in wearing face coverings.

“There’s no downside to wearing a mask,” Admiral Giroir said. “I’m a pediatric I.C.U. physician. I wore a mask 10 hours a day for many, many years.”

Asked if states with stark increases in cases, like Florida, South Carolina, Arizona, Texas and Georgia, should consider more stringent measures, Admiral Giroir said that closing bars and limiting the number of patrons allowed in restaurants are “two measures that really do need to be done.”

The admiral, who has been in charge of testing, also told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that rates of people testing positive were “leveling off.” However, the Covid Tracking Project at The Atlantic shows positivity rates leveling only in the Northeast, with rates rising in the South, West and Midwest.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams said people needed to “understand the importance of wearing face coverings and good hand hygiene and staying home when they can.”

Dr. Adams wore a mask during his entire interview on the CBS program “Face the Nation” even though he was being interviewed remotely from Indiana. He said measures like wearing face coverings were “critically important.”

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