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Politics

After Senate vote, massive U.S. coronavirus bill moves to the House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate’s unanimous passage of a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill sent the unprecedented economic legislation to the House of Representatives, whose Democratic leaders hope to pass it on Friday.

The Republican-led Senate approved the massive bill – which would be the largest fiscal stimulus measure ever passed by Congress – by 96 votes to none late on Wednesday, overcoming bitter partisan negotiations and boosting its chances of passing the Democratic-majority House.

The unanimous vote, a rare departure from bitter partisanship in Washington, underscored how seriously members of Congress are taking the global pandemic as Americans suffer and the medical system reels.

“When there’s a crisis of this magnitude, the private sector cannot solve it,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

“Individuals even with bravery and valor are not powerful enough to beat it back. Government is the only force large enough to staunch the bleeding and begin the healing.”

The package is intended to flood the country with cash in a bid to stem the crushing impact on the economy of an intensifying epidemic that has killed more than 900 people in the United States and infected at least 60,000.

It follows two others that became law this month. The money at stake amounts to nearly half of the total $4.7 trillion the U.S. government spends annually.

Republican President Donald Trump, who has promised to sign the bill as soon as it passes the House, expressed his delight on Twitter. “96-0 in the United States Senate. Congratulations AMERICA!” he wrote.

Only two other nations, China and Italy, have more coronavirus cases than the United States. The World Health Organization has warned the United States looks set to become the epicenter of the pandemic.

The House’s Democratic leaders announced that they would have a voice vote on Friday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she backed the bill, and was open to passing more legislation if needed to address the crisis in future.

The House Republican leadership is recommending a “yes” vote.

The massive bill, worth more than $2 trillion, includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 apiece to millions of families.

The legislation will also provide $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

There had been some debate about whether all 430 House members, most of whom have been out of Washington since March 14, would have to return to consider the bill. That would have been difficult, given that at least two have tested positive for coronavirus, a handful of others are in self-quarantine and several states have issued stay-at-home orders.

There are five vacant House seats.

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Politics

U.S. offers $58 billion aid to airlines as governments seek to avert bankruptcies

SINGAPORE/DUBAI (Reuters) – Governments stepped up efforts on Thursday to help airlines hammered by a virus-induced travel slump, with the United States offering $58 billion in aid, Singapore promising to keep its carrier aloft, and Australia easing competition rules.

AirAsia, the region’s biggest budget carrier, was the latest airline to announce sweeping cuts to its schedule in response to the deepening crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak. It said some of its units would halt flights altogether for a period.

“Nobody can survive this for more than a few months, when you have this unprecedented 95% decline in passenger numbers or even 100% in some cases and you still have all those fixed costs,” said Brendan Sobie, an aviation analyst in Singapore.

In a desperate bid to preserve some revenues and keep global supply chains operating, U.S. Delta Air Lines, Air New Zealand and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways joined a list of carriers that have turned passenger planes into cargo-only transporters.

About half of the world’s air cargo normally travels in the bellies of passenger planes, so the cancellation of passenger flights has led to a sharp reduction in cargo capacity, with knock on effects to food, industry and other vital trade.

“For airlines, it’s apocalypse now,” said Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents carriers around the world.

“Travel restrictions and evaporating demand mean that, aside from cargo, there is almost no passenger business,” he said.

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Senate passed a $58 billion aid package late on Wednesday, half in the form of grants to cover some 750,000 airline staff wages. Those receiving funds cannot lay off employees before Sept. 30 or change collective bargaining pacts. [L1N2BI0XW]

The bill has restrictions on stock buybacks, dividends and executive pay, and allows the government to take equity, warrants or other compensation as part of the rescue package.

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The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to back the move on Friday. President Donald Trump has promised to sign it.

‘CORPORATE ACTION’

U.S. airlines, like others around the globe, have been reeling from the slide in passenger numbers.

United Airlines Holdings said capacity would drop 68% in April and Alaska Air Group cut its schedule by 70% in April and May. American Airlines suspended its dividend, drew down a $400 million credit line and secured an additional loan.

IATA, which estimates the pandemic will cost the global industry $252 billion in lost revenues this year, said it had written to 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including India, Japan and South Korea for emergency support for carriers.

Singapore’s finance minister Heng Swee Keat said Singapore Airlines Ltd would soon announce “corporate action” supported by state investor Temasek Holdings to tackle the crisis. Share trading in the carrier, which said this week it was seeking extra funds, was halted on Thursday.

Malaysian budget airline AirAsia Group said it had suspended some of its international and domestic flights, while its India and Philippines units were suspending all flights for certain periods.

Australia and New Zealand have joined other governments in announcing some financial relief. But this has not stopped carriers from putting staff on leave and grounding planes.

Virgin Australia plans to permanently cut more than 1,000 jobs among the 8,000 staff that have already been stood down. Australia’s Flight Centre Travel Group said it would cut 6,000 travel agent roles globally.

In a move unthinkable under normal conditions, Australia’s competition regulator said it would allow Virgin, Qantas Airways and Regional Express to coordinate flight schedules and share revenue on 10 regional routes.

“We hope that this temporary measure will also support airlines’ ability to again compete with each other on these routes once the pandemic crisis has passed,” Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman Rod Sims said.

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World News

Number of coronavirus cases in Germany rises to 36,508: RKI

BERLIN (Reuters) – The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Germany has risen to 36,508 and 198 people have died of the disease, statistics from the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases showed on Thursday.

Cases rose by 4,995 compared with the previous day while the death toll climbed by 50, the tally showed.

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Politics

U.S. Senate approves big rescue for struggling aviation sector

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted late Wednesday 96-0 to give the U.S. aviation industry $58 billion in a coronavirus-rescue package, half in the form of grants to cover some 750,000 employees’ paychecks, in a badly needed lifeline for an industry facing the worst travel downturn in history.

The $2 trillion economic rescue package awards passenger airlines $25 billion in grants and $25 billion in loans, cargo carriers another $8 billion divided between loans and grants, and airport contractors like caterers up to $3 billion in grants. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote to approve the measure Friday and President Donald Trump has promised to sign it into law.

Senate Republicans had fought what they called a give away to airlines and initially offered only loans, while airlines had threatened to start laying off tens of thousands within days if they did not get cash.

“This is not a corporate bailout; it’s a rescue package for workers,” said Association of Flight Attendants Sara Nelson, who spearheaded the idea of direct payroll grants for employees ranging from janitorial staff and gate agents to mechanics and pilots.

Reuters reported Chao worked the phones late into the night talking to air carriers about what they needed to ensure they could maintain payrolls, a person briefed on call on Tuesday that lawmakers were nearing agreement on a deal for cash grants for payroll and other employee costs, after airlines made a last-minute effort to convince lawmakers they needed the cash to prevent furloughing tens of thousands of workers.

U.S. airline shares extended a Tuesday rally on hopes for cash relief and under the bill airlines are set to get cash assistance in as little as two weeks.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose party had proposed $58 billion in loans, said on Wednesday the grants were a key sticking point. He said Democrats insisted “we give away money to airlines and never get it back.”

In a win for labor, companies receiving funds cannot lay off employees before Sept. 30 or change collective bargaining agreements.

The bill has restrictions on stock buybacks, dividends and executive compensation, and allows the government to take equity, warrants or other compensation as part of the rescue package, but does not require it.

Airlines would also receive tax relief on fuel purchases and, in a move that may bring down passenger fares, a temporary suspension on ticket taxes.

As the coronavirus has spread around the world, travel demand has plummeted, with airlines drastically reducing flights and warning of more cuts to come.

Airlines keep canceling flights, borrowing money and slashing costs as demand falls.

Alaska Airlines said Wednesday it would cut its flights by 70% in April and May, while United Airlines said Wednesday would now cut 52% of U.S. flights and overall capacity by 68%. On Tuesday, 279,018 people were screened at all U.S. airport checkpoints, down 87% over last year.

Airlines accepting loans may have to ensure certain air services in order to maintain health care and pharmaceutical supply chains, including to remote communities, but other consumer and environmental protections sought by many Democrats did not make it into the bill.

Airlines and unions won crucial support for the grants from U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who worked the phones late into the night, telling lawmakers and others in the administration she was concerned about the impact of job losses and a decline in the U.S. aviation sector on competition, people briefed on the matter said.

“Without grants, airlines may be forced to choose bankruptcy over federal loans, if loan conditions are too inflexible,” Chao warned in a memo seen by Reuters.

Airlines have argued that they are key to restarting the economy once the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

U.S. airports, whose concourses have been nearly empty, are set to receive $10 billion in grants.

The government will also provide $25 billion in grants for U.S. transit systems and $1 billion for U.S. passenger railroad Amtrak, that have seen ridership fall dramatically as states ordered tens of millions of Americans to stay home and avoid non-essential travel.

Boeing Co could receive government loans under a $17 billion fund set aside for direct national security-related loans, Toomey said, adding that many companies could qualify. Boeing could also qualify under the broader $454 billion loan program.

“It is not meant to be exclusively for Boeing… You should not think of it as a Boeing allocation,” Toomey said.

Boeing had sought at least $60 billion in government loan guarantees for itself and the entire aerospace manufacturing sector. Boeing did not comment on Wednesday.

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World News

Tempers rise in U.S. Senate as vote nears on $2 trillion coronavirus bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators were set to vote on Wednesday on a $2 trillion bipartisan package of legislation to alleviate the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, although critics from the right and left threatened to hold up the bill.

Top aides to Republican President Donald Trump and senior Senate Republicans and Democrats said they agreed on the unprecedented stimulus bill in the early hours of Wednesday after five days of talks.

The massive bill includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 apiece to millions of U.S. families.

Several Republican senators said the bill needed to be changed to ensure that laid-off workers would not be paid more than they earned on the job.

“This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, told a news conference.

In response, Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said he was prepared to block the bill if Republicans do not drop their objections.

That came after leaders of both parties predicted a Wednesday vote.

“Today the Senate will act to help the people of this country weather this storm,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the chamber convened at noon (1600 GMT).

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Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said his party was willing to pass the bill as quickly as possible.

“Help is on the way. Big help. Quick help,” he said on the Senate floor.

Trump is ready to sign the measure into law, the White House said, but it was unclear how quickly Congress could get the package to his desk. McConnell did not say what time the Senate would hold its vote, and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is not expected to act before Thursday.

The package will also include $350 billion for small-business loans, $250 billion for expanded unemployment aid and at least $100 billion for hospitals and related health systems.

It would be the largest rescue package ever approved by Congress and the third such effort to be passed this month. The money at stake amounts to nearly half of the $4.7 trillion the U.S. government spends annually.

‘DROP IN THE BUCKET’

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the $3.8 billion allocated to his state would not cover the tax revenue it stands to lose from reduced economic activity. His state accounts for roughly half of all U.S. coronavirus cases.

“That is a drop in the bucket,” he said at a news conference.

The package aims to flood the U.S. economy with cash in a bid to stem the impact of a pandemic that has killed 812 people in the United States and infected more than 59,200.

The governors of at least 18 states, including New York, have issued stay-at-home directives affecting about half the U.S. population. The sweeping orders are aimed at slowing the pathogen’s spread, but have upended daily life as schools and businesses shutter indefinitely.

On Wall Street, the benchmark S&P 500 .SPX rallied for a second straight day, closing up 1.15%. [nL1N2BI1YH]

Republican Senator Rand Paul, the only senator to vote against an earlier round of emergency virus funding, may be unable to vote after testing positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

It also must pass the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who proposed a more far-reaching rescue package, did not say whether she would support the Senate version.

“We’ll see the bill and see how the Senate votes. So there’s no decision about timing until we see the bill,” she told reporters.

Any changes made by the House would also require Senate approval, which could lead to further delays.

The No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer, told lawmakers that they would be notified 24 hours before any action.

House members left Washington 10 days ago, but the lower chamber could quickly pass the bill without requiring their return, through a “voice vote” that would require only a few lawmakers to be present.

The top House Republican, Kevin McCarthy, said he would prefer that approach and called for its passage on Friday.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.)

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Business

U.S. set to grant automakers a lifeline — but no bailout

WASHINGTON/DETROIT (Reuters) – The $2 trillion economic rescue package before the U.S. Senate on Wednesday would send the federal government to the auto industry’s rescue for the second time in a dozen years.

Automakers are fearful of being tagged as seeking a new government bailout so soon after the 2009 government-funded auto restructurings. Detroit has not sought industry-specific assistance, instead making the case that the entire economy needs urgent access to liquidity.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey said Wednesday the deal, which he called “the biggest government intervention in the economy in the history of the world,” sets aside $454 billion to make loans or loan guarantees for companies across all sectors, as well as states.

It was more likely the money will be used to leverage even more funds in loans from the Federal Reserve, said Toomey, who told reporters on a conference call that the Treasury would then be able to make loans, purchase loans or purchase corporate debt, which could be a major boost for automakers.

Industry officials, especially at General Motors Co (GM.N), were eager to avoid the appearance of a federal bailout. Sales suffered and the No. 1 U.S. automaker was nicknamed “Government Motors” after its $50 billion bailout in 2009.

The United Auto Workers union and the Detroit Three automakers recently discussed sending a letter to Capitol Hill explaining why the industry needed a source of liquidity, but GM ultimately declined to sign the letter and it was not sent, people familiar with the matter said.

The final package contained no benefits targeted specifically at automakers. By contrast, U.S. airlines are set to receive $25 billion for payroll costs in cash grants that do not need to be paid back.

On Wednesday, S&P downgraded Ford Motor Co (F.N) to “junk” status, while the automaker confirmed it had drawn down its $15.4 billion credit facilities. S&P said Ford was at risk of another downgrade.

Moody’s warned it was considering cutting GM to junk as it faces sharply lower demand. “A severe disruption in automotive demand due to the coronavirus, combined with the possibility of a follow-on economic recession, will place considerable pressure on GM’s cash flow and credit metrics,” Moody’s said.

Automakers do not rule out seeking additional help if sales or production remain frozen.

But auto and parts makers stand to benefit from other provisions, including a 50% employee retention tax credit and suspension of the employer share of payroll taxes for two years. GM and its employees paid more than $3.15 billion in state, local and payroll taxes in the United States in 2018.

GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) (FCHA.MI) (FCAU.N) have halted North American vehicle production until at least March 30, and people briefed on the matter said they plan to extend that into April.

Automakers will get some tax benefits, but the government loans are the biggest help, sources said. Aid will also be available to auto dealers and thousands of smaller suppliers. Funds for U.S. consumers also could stimulate new car sales again once stay-at-home orders lift.

The Detroit auto companies are in far better financial health than they were ahead of the 2008-2009 crisis. Balance sheets at all three companies are healthier, and GM and Ford moved this month to build cash reserves further by drawing down a combined total of more than $30 billion from credit lines.

The global auto industry is bracing for worldwide sales to plummet more than 12% from 2019, worse than the two-year peak-to-trough decline of 8% during the global recession in 2008-2009, research firm IHS Markit predicted on Wednesday.

The Senate package could help badly stressed, smaller suppliers the automakers rely on for parts.

“I’m working with four middle-market suppliers – $150 million in revenue to about $400 million in revenue – and most of these companies are not all that well capitalized,” Steve Wybo, auto group practice leader for restructuring consultancy Conway MacKenzie, told Reuters.

RoMan Manufacturing Inc, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a family-owned manufacturer of transformers and glass molding equipment for automakers and other industries. Co-owner Bob Roth said its balance sheet is “rock solid,” but he is clamping down on spending as he sees other manufacturers pleading for relief from bank loans.

Normally, he said, “we pay all bills on 10th and 25th. Now we’re moving to one payment cycle a month.” He told members of the families that own the company “we won’t pay a quarterly dividend for a while.”

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World News

Shut by coronavirus, London Zoo seeks donations to safeguard animals

LONDON (Reuters) – The world’s oldest zoo is shut to the public for the first time since World War Two as London locks down because of the coronavirus pandemic, but for the roughly 18,000 animals housed there, life must go on.

London Zoo, opened to scientists in 1828 and to the public in 1847, is one of the British capital’s most-loved attractions, but like everything else in the city it has been impacted by the ongoing crisis, raising concern about the animals’ welfare.

Unlike a museum or an art gallery, it is not just a case of locking the doors.

Captive animals are needy, whether big beasts such as lions, gorillas, zebras and giraffes or the Madagascan hissing cockroaches, or everything else in between.

It is a costly, and labor-intensive, business, and without the revenue from daily tickets sales — worth 27.8 million pounds ($33 million) last year from London Zoo and ZSL’s Whipsnade Zoo — a prolonged shutdown is a nightmare scenario.

Add in the logistical problems posed for the small army of zookeepers, vets, security and ground staff (none classified as key workers) in getting to the Regents Park site, if they have not been forced to self-isolate, and it is unsurprising London Zoo is appealing for donations.

“Ordinarily, we are entirely reliant on public support, so without people coming through the gates the income isn’t coming in,” ZSL’s chief operating officer, Kathryn England, told Reuters on Wednesday. “We are really having to find other ways for people to show their support for us and donate instead.

“What is important is that we have been planning for this, so that we can make sure our staff can keep coming in and putting the health and welfare of our animals first,” she said. “Our animals eat a lot and we have to make sure our supply chains continue, with top-quality food. Whether that’s fruit and veg from Covent Garden, or meat, we need a continuous supply.”

To ensure they can get to work, many of the zoo’s 50 daily staff have opted to live in the zoo’s Lion Lodges that usually house overnight guests experiencing a “zoo sleepover”.

“They are not classified as key workers but they are absolutely essential to us,” England said.

“They are a team of astonishingly dedicated staff,” she said. “Some are staying on site to make sure the animals get the care they need. We need to make sure we have all the staff in.”

To safeguard the health of the animals, zookeepers wear protective clothing, such as face masks and gloves.

With no crowds wandering around, some might suggest the animals will be enjoying some rare peace and quiet. But that also brings challenges.

“The zookeepers are not only feeding them, mucking them out but also providing the enrichment that they need as well because this is very different environment that they’re in with no visitors,” England said.

“The big cats don’t seem to be bothered at all, like Bhanu our big lion. He’s just lounging around in the sun. But the pigmy goats and penguins are a bit confused.”

While England is confident the shutdown will not endanger any of the animals, she said the loss of revenue was one of the biggest challengers the zoo has faced.

“The (public’s) response has been overwhelming so far, but we are a charity and in a good year we would have 1 million people coming through the gates.

“We are really missing the crowds and we really want people to support us through our website www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo.”

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Economy

Fed spigots help restore U.S. Treasury liquidity

NEW YORK/BOSTON, March 25 (Reuters) – The $17 trillion U.S. Treasury market perked up on Wednesday, after chaos over the last few weeks, as a decline in the so-called bid-ask spread on prices for notes and bonds pointed to increased liquidity and trading activity.

The market though remains a long way off from normalcy.

Liquidity in Treasuries diminished in recent weeks, resulting in spikes in volatility as the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic escalated.

The bid-ask spread on benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury notes had widened as much as 200 basis points on March 20, but narrowed to within a range of six basis points or less on Wednesday, according to Refinitiv data. That is near the typical levels of three basis points or less seen before the coronavirus crisis, reflecting more market participants and making it easier for dealers to hedge risk.

Analysts and traders attributed improved market conditions to the Federal Reserve’s aggressive interventions, which include buying corporate bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and Treasuries.

A roughly $2 trillion U.S. stimulus package that was agreed between Republicans and Democrats to help consumers and companies affected by the coronavirus pandemic, also added to more positive market sentiment.

“It is nice to have a period of calm amidst the chaos we endured at the beginning of the contagion, but we will still be subject to swings in the market as the nation’s ability to stem COVID-19 (coronavirus) is put to the test and news on state of the health of the American public continues to filter through,” said Susan Estes, chief executive officer of OpenDoor Securities, a trading platform for off-the-run U.S. Treasuries and TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities).

Off-the-runs are older Treasuries, which represent almost 99% of the total outstanding debt, but make up only about 25% of daily trading volume.

OpenDoor produces liquidity scores for all 350-plus Treasury securities, measuring the bid-offer spread on each individual issue based on a number of factors.

Estes said she had seen an improvement in the liquidity scores on Wednesday over all previous days since the crisis began.

The Fed has been buying $75 billion per day in Treasuries and by the end of the week it will have purchased nearly $700 billion since it launched its Treasury purchase program in mid-March.

Fed purchases have already been more than twice as large as the $270 billion in U.S. Treasuries held by primary dealers, Barclays said in a research note.

Priya Misra, head of global rates strategy at TD Securities in New York, said the better liquidity reflects Fed efforts that reduce the need for investors to sell everything they can.

“We are not at fully normal levels yet – think it will take some more time for risk assets to stabilize and dealer balance sheets to be less constrained,” she added. (Reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss in New York and Ross Kerber in Boston; Editing by Tom Brown)

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World News

Bolsonaro calls Brazil coronavirus lockdown a 'crime', faces backlash

SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – President Jair Bolsonaro on Wednesday blasted as criminals the governors and mayors of Brazil closing businesses to slow the coronavirus outbreak, but he drew a fierce backlash from across the political spectrum.

Bolsonaro cited the example of U.S. President Donald Trump in making the economic case against the shutdowns favored by public health experts, who have warned the outbreak in Brazil could trigger a collapse of the healthcare system next month.

“Other viruses have killed many more than this one and there wasn’t all this commotion,” Bolsonaro told journalists outside his official residence. “What a few mayors and governors are doing is a crime. They’re destroying Brazil.”

“If we don’t get back to work, Brazil could depart from democratic normalcy,” he added, citing recent examples of social unrest in Latin America.

In throwing his full weight against the shutdowns taking effect in Brazil’s biggest cities and states, Bolsonaro has cast himself against local officials, congressional leadership and even the advice of his own Health Ministry.

In a widely criticized national address on Tuesday, he played down the risks of coronavirus, assuring Brazilians that “90% of us will have no symptoms if contaminated.”

Senate President Davi Alcolumbre called Bolsonaro’s speech “grave,” warning it contradicted the advice of the World Health Organization and calling for “leadership that is serious, responsible and committed to the life and health of its people.”

Governor Joao Doria of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state and the epicenter of the outbreak, had a tense and confrontational call with Bolsonaro, according to people who heard the exchange.

Doria, who aligned himself with Bolsonaro in his 2018 campaign and has since become one of the president’s main rivals on the right, appeared to confirm the tone of the call.

“Instead of talking about life-saving measures, he preferred to talk about politics and elections. Lamentable and worrying,” Doria wrote on Twitter.

The Health Ministry said on Tuesday that coronavirus had claimed 46 lives in Brazil as confirmed cases jumped to 2,201, from just 291 a week before.

Despite the toll, Bolsonaro told the nation on Tuesday that most people, including himself, had nothing to fear.

“In my particular case, with my history as an athlete, if I were infected with the virus, I would have no reason to worry, I would feel nothing, or it would be at most just a little flu,” he said.

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World News

Coronavirus Russia: Hackers loyal to Putin may be behind WHO cyberattack, says expert

Spokesman Tarik Jasarevic yesterday told Express.co.uk hackers were targeting the WHO in multiple ways, including vishing [voice phishing], email phishing, WhatsApp phishing and social media scams. The Geneva-based health body is critical to the worldwide effort to halt the spread of the disease – and so anything which slows down its operation will, ultimately, endanger lives. So far the identity of the culprits remains unclear.

Mark Mulready, of cybersecurity specialists Irdeto told Express.co.uk: “Attribution is one of the most challenging aspects of cyberattacks.

“Known ransomware operators have stated that they will not target health and medical organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“However there have already been reports that a hospital in the UK has been hit by Maze ransomware.”

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The most likely scenario would be a state sponsored attack

Mark Mulready

Nevertheless, Mr Mulready added: “The most likely scenario would be a state sponsored attack.

“There have been numerous reports that Russia is linked to running a disinformation campaign around COVID-19.

“EU observers of Russian media have observed a significant amount of articles which contain false and misleading information regarding the coronavirus pandemic designed to incite unrest in the West.

“No doubt there will be detailed investigations ongoing regarding attribution for this attack on the WHO and we may hear more on this in due course.”

In such an uncertain climate, Mr Mulready drew a parallel with efforts to prevent transmission of coronavirus himself among people, using a phrase popularised by Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general.

Mr Mulready explained: “Global organisations need to behave just like humans to prevent attacks.

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“They need to increase their cyber hygiene levels.

“Don’t rely on systems with outdated and vulnerable software.

“Patch, patch, patch and test, test, test.

“Ensure you have a secure backup (which would not be automatically be impacted in case of a ransomware attack and test it) and have robust anti-phishing measures since most ransomware infections start with a mouse click by an employee.”

Russian hackers are widely blamed for having targeted the 2016 US Presidential election with a campaign of misinformation.

A report published by Microsoft in October blamed Fancy Bear, the Russian-sponsored hacker group, which Microsoft has named internally as Strontium, for “significant cyberattacks” on 16 national and international sports and anti-doping organizations, including the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA).

Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of customer security and trust, wrote: “The methods used in the most recent attacks are similar to those routinely used by Strontium to target governments, militaries, think tanks, law firms, human rights organizations, financial firms and universities around the world.

“Strontium’s methods include spear-phishing, password spray, exploiting internet-connected devices and the use of both open-source and custom malware.”

Speaking in 2017, Mr Putin said: “Artists may act on behalf of their country, they wake up in good mood and paint things.

“Same with hackers, they woke up today, read something about the state-to-state relations.

“If they are patriotic, they contribute in a way they think is right, to fight against those who say bad things about Russia.”

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