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Monitoring How Other Countries Are Handling Coronavirus Cases


We have been reporting a lot about how the coronavirus has affected life here in the United States. We've also talked about its effects in Asia and Europe. But this is a global pandemic. The virus is appearing almost everywhere now, so we want to spend the next few minutes looking at other parts of the world. And for that, we're joined by a team of our colleagues. NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Islamabad, Pakistan; Eyder Peralta is in Nairobi, Kenya; and Carrie Kahn joins us from Mexico City.

Hello to all of you.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.


DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Carrie, I want to start with you. Here in the U.S., I mean, we're approaching 10,000 confirmed cases. I mean, Mexico - right next door. The government says 118 confirmed cases. I mean, what a huge disparity. Are those numbers solid?

KAHN: That is the latest number from the federal government here. Last night, they did also confirm Mexico's first COVID-19 death. But Mexican health officials insist the country is still in this initial phase of the virus. They say all of the confirmed cases are of people who traveled and brought the virus back or in people that had direct contact with that traveler. But there is not a lot of testing being done in the country. Officials say they reached that conclusion through statistical models based on how the virus progressed in other countries. And they say community spread of the virus won't hit here until the first week of April. So to date, they've tested about a thousand people, David, and that's in a population of about 125 million.

GREENE: And certainly, that's something that officials here in the United States have been saying - that wants more testing happens, you start seeing that more cases exist that you might not have known about. Diaa, let me turn to you in Islamabad. I guess Pakistan sounds like it's been reporting a big jump in cases this week. What are you seeing there?

HADID: Right. So now there's just over 300 cases, and most of those were in the past week. But here, like Mexico, less than 2,000 people are being tested. So that figure is probably quite wobbly at this point. And doctors say a key concern is that people are still crowding into hospitals for general services and to be tested for the coronavirus. But because of that crowding, if they have the virus, they're almost certainly spreading it. And most medics here don't have the proper protective gear. Some don't even have those general surgery masks. And so one doctor I spoke to here described this pandemic as a suicide mission for health workers.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

Well, Eyder, let me turn to you in Nairobi. How is this pandemic playing out on the African continent?

PERALTA: I mean, we've just seen an explosion of cases in the past couple of weeks. We went from a handful of countries reporting mostly imported cases to now 33 countries. And epidemiologists at the World Health Organization say there's still a chance of containing this thing here, but countries have to trace every single case so they don't lose the chain of infection.

But the big problem is that in places like South Africa, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Democratic Republic of Congo, we're starting to see infections in people with no travel or contact history. So the question is, are those cases pointing to a more widespread and undetected presence of the virus?

GREENE: I mean, Diaa mentioned Pakistan facing certain challenges when it comes to people who work in the medical profession dealing with this. Are there certain challenges that you see facing Africa when confronting this crisis?

PERALTA: Yeah, lots. I mean, the big one is that the health system is just ill-equipped to handle this. Most hospitals don't have ventilators. Most of them cannot resuscitate people. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, who led the Congolese response against Ebola, he paints a bleak picture. He says if this epidemic takes off, we're going to see panic. He says the mortality rate here could be up to 10%.

I mean, that said, the governments here seem to know that. Many have shut down their schools and closed down churches and mosques, and some have canceled all flights. South Africa, which is a hotspot here, has taken serious measures, including closing down bars at night.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about how governments are responding, like you just said, Eyder. Diaa, in Pakistan, I mean, I can't get it out of my mind - the idea of a suicide mission for people in the medical community dealing with this. This is, you know, Third World, huge population. What is the government doing to get ready for this as it gets worse and worse?

HADID: Well, I mean, here it's very provincial, and the response has been uneven across the country. But what's key is that there's no place in Pakistan that's shutting down like you see in France or Italy. And that's because social distancing here is nearly impossible. Most people live in crowded homes in tightly packed slums. And that said, the government isn't shutting down mosques, and that's where dozens to hundreds of people gather for communal Friday prayers. And clerics have said, if the government tries to shut them down, they'll fight back.

GREENE: Carrie, you said that in Mexico, community spread is something that the people are fearing and modeling's showing that this could really start taking off in terms of this virus spreading. What's the government reaction so far there?

KAHN: Well, they say we're not at that phase yet, we're still in the initial phase. So they've implemented no social distancing for now. And it's just crazy to watch, you know, in the U.S., all the sheltering in place. But here, public schools are still in session; there's some exceptions. But the public schools, the government offices are still open until Friday. Restaurants are open. Last weekend, there was a huge rock concert here in Mexico City with 100,000 people in attendance. So they're not calling for those social distancing requirements until March 23.

And then the president continues to hold public events. He's come under great criticism for hugging and kissing supporters. But he says this weekend, he'll keep up his busy travel schedule, but he'll insist on smaller crowds.

GREENE: God, it's so different. I mean, we have presidential candidates here in the U.S. who are, you know, giving victory speeches by livestream with no people. And certainly, we don't have rock concerts. I mean, life feels completely different.

Eyder, what does life feel like in Nairobi and where you are?

PERALTA: So I'm guessing a lot like what you're describing because some parts of Nairobi here, they're completely deserted. But a lot of the worry here is economic. I mean, the idea that the Kenyan government will write citizens a check like the U.S. is planning, that's a fantasy. And panic shopping here, that's just - it's not an option for most Kenyans. Right now, tourism has ground to a halt; businesses are stalled. And many people, they're out of a job. And what they're worried about is how they're going to eat when their food runs out.

GREENE: Diaa, does life feel altered in Pakistan right now?

HADID: To some degree. And like Eyder said, one of the big concerns here is economic. People will go hungry if they can't work.

But another big concern here is quarantine. Pakistan borders Iran, which has been an epicenter of this virus. And Shiite pilgrims who've been returning from there were put in a quarantine station on the border, but that frankly didn't work. And so when they were released, dozens of them were found to actually have the virus. And so we saw yesterday that people rioted and tried to smash up a quarantine center in a different city because they were afraid that people put there would actually spread the virus further.

GREENE: Carrie, let me just finish with you. President Trump taking steps to limit nonessential traffic on the border with Canada - I'm just wondering about the southern border with Mexico. Are you hearing anything from the Mexican side about what this - what changes we might see there?

KAHN: Mexico is just terrified of the border being closed and what it would do to its already slumping economy. President Trump has talked more about what he plans to do with illegal border-crossers than the legal traffic at the southern border. In a place like San Diego, where border agents say they detain about 130 migrants a day, the legal crossers between San Diego and Tijuana number upward of 100,000 people a day.

GREENE: All right. We have heard from NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City, NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad and NPR's Eyder Peralta in Nairobi as we cover the coronavirus and this global pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "4 BC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.