Coronavirus, World Hunger, Oil Prices: Your Thursday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering the calamity of collapsing oil prices, a looming world hunger crisis and two lovers dating across borders.

The collapse in oil prices from the coronavirus pandemic is spelling economic calamity for oil-dependent nations like Iraq and Venezuela.

“No one imagined a crisis of this scope,” one global energy expert said. “This was in no scenario.”

Our reporters explored how oil-coronavirus shock will hit countries around the world.

Markets: Asian markets were mixed on Thursday, while futures markets predicted a weak opening on Wall Street. Follow our live briefing.

In fact, the bloc has funneled more emergency aid, with little oversight, to each of the countries than to virus-ravaged Spain or Italy.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary is exercising emergency powers granted to him to deny opposition mayors sizable tax receipts. Poland’s government is forging ahead with presidential elections on May 10, requiring votes to be cast by postal ballot, despite the postal union calling it impossible.

Though the European Parliament has called both the Polish and Hungarian actions during the coronavirus crisis “totally incompatible with European values,” the bloc’s reluctance to penalize them has raised questions.

Details: Hungary and Poland, with a combined population of 48 million and fewer than 700 confirmed Covid-19 deaths, received 13 billion euros. Italy and Spain, with 107 million people and more than 46,000 deaths, received half as much.

Lockdowns are drying up work and incomes, leaving millions to worry about having enough to eat. The World Food Program estimates that 265 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of the year, which would double the number of people facing acute hunger.

In Nairobi, a giveaway of flour and oil set off a stampede. In India, thousands line up for bread and vegetables. But even charitable giveaways could expose people to the virus if throngs appeared.

To get a picture of the crisis, our reporters around the world spoke to a migrant worker in Delhi; a construction worker displaced from his home in Syria; and an aid worker in a Nairobi shantytown.

Quote: “Instead of coronavirus, the hunger will kill us,” said the migrant worker, lining up for food. “The lockdown has trampled on our dignity.”

Above, Karsten Tüchsen Hansen, 89, and Inga Rasmussen, 85, at the Danish-German border. She drives from the Danish side, he cycles from the German side.

Love, Mr. Tüchsen Hansen believes, “is the best thing in the world.”

U.S.-Iran tensions: President Trump told the Navy to “shoot down” and destroy any Iranian gunboats that harass U.S. naval ships. The threat came a week after the Pentagon accused Iranian boats of “dangerous” approaches to U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.

Watch: What if Anne Frank had vlogged her experience in hiding? That’s the premise of a new online series aimed at young people living in isolation.

What we’re reading: Outside magazine’s deep dive on the eruption of the volcano on White Island in New Zealand. Elisabeth Goodridge, our deputy travel editor, calls it “a well-written, thoroughly reported and very, very gripping read, which shines a light on the risks of adventure tourism and the question of who’s responsible when disaster strikes.”

Cook: Meatballs work with almost any meat, including vegan substitutes. And once you master the basics, you can change the seasonings for lots of variety.

Need a little inspiration? We have many more ideas on things to cook, watch, read and do on our At Home page.

News that a person who died in Santa Clara County, Calif., on Feb. 6 had the coronavirus has raised questions about the timeline of the U.S. outbreak, which is by far the world’s largest. To get a scientific view of the implications, we spoke to Carl Zimmer, a science reporter, Times columnist and the author of the book “A Planet of Viruses.”

What do we know about the timing of the virus’s arrival in the U.S.?

The virus itself jumped from bats into humans in Asia, most likely China. Then there’s the outbreak in Wuhan, picking up speed in December. Then it’s in Europe, probably in early January.

Studies of samples of virus from New York showed that the vast majority belonged to lineages introduced from Europe, and probably arrived early to mid-February. You can see this from minor but telltale mutations in their genes that act like a signature. What the New York viruses are most similar to is not the viruses in Italy, but viruses in England, in France, in Belgium. It looks like a lot of viruses were moving around in Europe, and some were brought to the United States.

The evidence from California indicates it was arriving there by early or mid-January.

Could the virus have been circulating in California even earlier?

Scientists don’t believe Covid was raging in California in November. Looking at virus genes, they can see it was just getting started around then in Wuhan. They don’t see the kind of hospitalizations in California you’d see if it was taking off. We know what it’s like when Covid-19 takes off, and it was not happening in November.

What are you looking for next?

In the autopsy for the Feb. 6 case, all they needed to find to confirm that this person had Covid-19 was some fragments of the virus’s genes.

If you really want to know more, you need the whole genome — all the genetic material in the virus. Then, looking at the mutations, you can see where the virus came from, and you can start getting some guesses about how it got there.

But we’re dealing here with a deceased person. The virus in their remains is breaking down.

Still, it’s possible that scientists may be able to extract enough virus to put the genome back together. I’m hoping for that.

That’s it for this briefing. If you’re bored, try “flip the switch.” See you next time.

— Isabella

Thank you
To Melissa Clark for the recipe, and to Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the rest of the break from the news. Andrea Kannapell, the Briefings editor, wrote today’s Back Story. You can reach the team at

• We’re listening to “The Daily,” about protests in the U.S. against stay-at-home orders. And you can join a phone call at 5:30 p.m. London time with our critic-at-large Amanda Hess and our “Together Apart” podcast host, Priya Parker, for a chat about nightly applause for medical workers. R.S.V.P. here.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword puzzle, and a clue: soft French cheese (four letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• The Times print edition was named World’s Best Designed Newspaper for the third straight year by the Society for News Design, and our Photo and Video teams won six World Press Photo awards.

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