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News Brief: Pandemic Deaths, China's Move On Hong Kong, Minneapolis Protests


More than 100,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19.


It took barely four months for the U.S. to reach this horrible marker. And there are still so many unanswered questions about how this country became the global epicenter of the pandemic. With less than 5% percent of the world's population, the U.S. has the largest number of cases and accounts for nearly a third of all known coronavirus fatalities.

GREENE: And I want to bring in NPR's health correspondent, Rob Stein, who is with us. Rob, can you just put this number into perspective?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Well, you know, it's a staggering number. One hundred thousand is almost triple the number of people who died from the flu all year this past year and about as many have died from opioid overdoses and suicides combined in an entire year. And the coronavirus has now killed more Americans than those who died in combat in every war since the Korean War. And many experts think 100,000 is probably an underestimate. I spoke with Thomas Inglesby about this. He runs the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He says that tragedies like this, it's sometimes easy to forget that human beings are behind these numbers.

THOMAS INGLESBY: It's a really sad milestone for the country. I think we need to step back and just remember that that's 100,000 that are lost. That's 100,000 families that are grieving. And this is a important and sad day for the country.

STEIN: You know, and it means that the U.S. has recorded nearly 1.7 million cases now, which means the U.S. has by far the most COVID cases and about a third of all the deaths.

GREENE: Well - and we should talk about how quickly this has happened, right, Rob? I mean, this is just a period of, like, four months. I mean, talk about how we've gotten here.

STEIN: Yeah. It's amazing how quickly so many people have died and many public health experts say the country, you know, might have been able to save a lot of lives if officials just recognized the magnitude of the threat sooner and acted more quickly and aggressively. The country kind of wasted a window of opportunity to keep the virus in check, you know, by failing to ramp up testing quickly enough and deploy other crucial public health weapons that have worked for other countries, like rapidly isolating sick people and quarantining anyone who had contact with them, to block the virus from spreading.

GREENE: Well, is there a sense that the country has some control over the spread of this virus now? Or are we going to watch this death toll just climb?

STEIN: So, you know, that's an important question. And, sadly, this actually may just be the beginning still. Things, you know, are looking better. Cases and deaths have been dropping overall nationwide, which is a good sign. But there are still thousands of new cases and hundreds of new deaths being reported every day. And in some places, things may still be getting worse.

GREENE: Well - but despite that, I mean, we're seeing a lot of the country open up. So, I mean, broadly, where do you see this going?

STEIN: Yeah. So the country is opening up, but the virus is still out there, and most people are still vulnerable, so the fear is people, you know, are kind of fed up and, you know, might think the worst is over. Here's Richard Besser. He runs the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

RICHARD BESSER: It's very easy for people to get cavalier and say, you know what? I'm going to get this infection. It's not going to be much of a problem. I want to get on with my life.

STEIN: And the danger in that is that, you know, terrible new outbreaks could easily erupt like wildfire, you know, flaring around the country throughout the spring and into the summer causing many thousands more deaths, especially in places where there still isn't enough testing and not enough health care workers. The worst could move in from the coast to more rural parts of the country where there aren't as many hospitals and intensive care beds. And even if things do slow down over the summer, what about the fall when schools reopen and the flu and hurricane seasons hit? Things could get very bad very quickly.

GREENE: All right. That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: You bet.


GREENE: So China appears one step closer to having near total control over Hong Kong.

MARTIN: Right. Today, China's legislature approved a plan that is going to suppress secession, public protests and basically any act that it sees as a national security threat. Ahead of the vote, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China. But he also said that the U.S. stands with the people of Hong Kong.

GREENE: And we have NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Can you talk to us about exactly what happened today? What did China approve here?

FENG: Beijing lawmakers voted so that a smaller group of lawmakers can draft and pass the actual law. Now, if passed, this law would effectively end Hong Kong's limited autonomy. Hong Kong, as you can imagine, is once again in turmoil. There were protests over the weekend, and yesterday, there were more protests over a different law, actually, a law that, if passed, would criminalize making fun of China's national anthem. More than 300 people were arrested, including some very young teenage schoolchildren.

GREENE: Well, in terms of the meaning of this, I mean, obviously, it could change life in Hong Kong. But when we talk about autonomy, that's an important word, and what could ending that mean for Hong Kong and its relationship with the United States?

FENG: It's a very important distinction. If Hong Kong is no longer truly autonomous, its special trade status with the U.S. could end. That status exempts Hong Kong from basically all financial restrictions, export controls, sanctions the U.S. currently puts on mainland China. And it's what's allowed Hong Kong to be in part a global financial hub. Here's Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell talking about this decision process now ongoing about whether to take away that status.


DAVID STILWELL: We're going to do this in a smart way, in a way that takes care of the things and the people we care about while at the same time letting Beijing know that what they're doing is - contravenes what they agreed to do back in '97.

FENG: Stilwell is talking here about the international treaty struck in 1997 between the U.K. and China, which was supposed to allow Hong Kong to maintain some autonomy until 2047, which has not happened.

GREENE: But, I mean, trade between the United States and Hong Kong is a big deal, right? Revoking that special status could be really significant.

FENG: Yes. It could hurt Hong Kong's status as a global financial hub because it will be more difficult to do business there. The real question now is whether this is going to deter Beijing to call off its moves to control Hong Kong. And likely, it will not. Beijing has called the American bluff. China is betting that mainland cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen will overtake Hong Kong as business capitals. And certain multinationals may choose to stay in Hong Kong anyways because they prefer Beijing's order rather than the chaos of further protests.

GREENE: I mean, wasn't this already quite a moment in U.S.-China relations because of the coronavirus and lots of other things?

FENG: Yes. I do not exaggerate when I say that this has been an absolutely crazy week for international relations. They might be the worst since 1989 which, is when China killed its own citizens during the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that could sanction Chinese officials over China's persecution of Muslims. Trump is expected to sign that bill into law. Two U.S. senators are proposing to ban all visas for Chinese grad students in STEM fields. And the two countries continue to go at each other about who handled the pandemic of this novel coronavirus more badly. So things are not looking up.

GREENE: NPR's Emily Feng for us in Beijing. Thanks, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, David.


GREENE: All right. Here's some sound from video shot last night by CNN's Sara Sidner on the streets of Minneapolis.


MARTIN: Police using tear gas to disperse crowds. There were fires. There was looting. All this follows the death of George Floyd, a black man who was arrested in Minneapolis. A white police officer had his knee on Floyd's neck. He was heard on video saying he couldn't breathe. The officer persisted, and Floyd died. Four officers involved were fired. And Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is calling now for criminal charges.

GREENE: Holly Bailey reports for The Washington Post, and she is in Minneapolis. Hi, Holly.


GREENE: What have the streets of Minneapolis felt like?

BAILEY: It's been chaotic. For most of the day yesterday, it was a peaceful protest outside Minneapolis' third police precinct, which is just a little bit south of downtown. That's where the four officers who have been fired for their involvement in the altercation with George Floyd were based. But then yesterday afternoon, it took a darker turn. Police were visible. They were on the roof of the precinct building, and they were firing rubber bullets and tear gas to sort of control a crowd around that building. But in the meantime, several businesses around that area, including a Target store, an Aldi grocery store, Cub Foods grocery store, an AutoZone, they were looted. People were seen, you know, rolling carts down the street full of merchandise. There were people - just - it was just complete chaos. And there seemed to be a little attempt on the police's part to stop it.

GREENE: Oh, interesting. Well, what is the city's plan to deal with what's happening at this point?

BAILEY: Essentially, the police chief, Medaria Arradondo, had said yesterday that they - the police has been sort of walking this tightrope between not wanting to infringe on the rights of people who feel traumatized after what has happened in the city after George Floyd's death and want to protest. But there's - I imagine there's going to be a lot of scrutiny today in what the police response has been last night whereas walking this line of trying to let people protest but at the same time not protecting businesses as chaos really unfolded last night.

GREENE: It sounds like, though, that we might see the National Guard come in. Where does that stand?

BAILEY: Well, Mayor Frey, last night as this unfolded, has said that he's asked the governor, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, to bring in the National Guard. They've asked for reinforcements from other police departments in the region to sort of help tamp down some of the chaos as they figure it's going to get worse before it gets better.

GREENE: All right, talking about another night of protest on the streets of Minneapolis after the death of a black man in police custody. Holly Bailey reports for The Washington Post, and she is there. Holly, thanks so much.

BAILEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.