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News Brief: Battle Against Coronavirus, U.S. Aid To Afghanistan


It's likely that many, many lives hang on the answer to this question - when is the right time for us to talk about loosening social restrictions? Well, President Trump is now saying he wants to have that discussion soon.


There are more than 40,000 coronavirus cases in the United States, around half of them in New York state. More states are ordering people to stay at home - Louisiana, New Mexico and West Virginia just since yesterday. We do not yet know the results of social distancing that many people have begun practicing in recent days, and health experts have warned of a long fight. Severe economic damage means these restrictions cannot last forever. The question is how long they last. And at the White House yesterday, the president sounded eager to move on.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: America will again and soon be open for business - very soon, a lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting - a lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. We're not going to let the cure be worse than the problem.

KING: White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is on the line with me this morning. Hey, Ayesha.


KING: OK. So let's look at the chronology here. Last Monday, President Trump issues these guidelines advising people to socially distance themselves. That's a week ago. And then last night, he says something kind of different. Right? What is he saying now exactly?

RASCOE: Well, now he's saying he thinks it will be weeks and not months before things start opening up again. Trump said that he would listen to what medical experts have to say but, ultimately, he would be the one to make the decision. He kept arguing that the U.S. could do two things at once, meaning the country can open up businesses and still contain the virus. Here's more from him.


TRUMP: We want to take care of our workers. So we'll be doing something, I think, relatively quickly. But we've learned a lot during this period. This was a very necessary period. Tremendous information was gained. But we can do two things at one time.

RASCOE: I should say that Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the medical experts leading Trump's coronavirus task force, was at yesterday's briefing. She would not say whether she agreed with Trump's assessment. She said she would look at the data over the next week and then she would make her recommendation.

KING: And Ayesha, there's a really interesting distinction here that I think gets to the heart of the logistics of how difficult this is, which is that President Trump can say what he wants. But it is state governors and local officials who are making the decisions about these lockdown orders - about closing schools, about people staying home from work. They're doing it because of what medical professionals are advising, but they're not all doing it at the same time. Right?

RASCOE: No, they're not doing it at the same time. And the federal government has not been the one driving these closures. Even though they put out these recommendations, they were voluntary. It's the states that are putting in place mandatory shutdowns for businesses and schools, and governors will still have that authority to make those decisions. So it's not clear exactly how Trump can roll all of this back.

KING: Ayesha, let me ask you lastly about this huge stimulus that the Senate is negotiating. We're talking about something in the neighborhood of $2 trillion. And there was an expectation that, given the urgency, it would pass yesterday - and then it didn't. What happened there?

RASCOE: One of the big sticking points had been this proposed $500 billion Treasury fund that would be used to help various industries. Democrats are saying there's not enough transparency in how the money would be used and how the administration would manage the fund. Trump says he will provide the oversight and make good deals. That's a hard sell for Democrats. But right now, we did hear from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer early this morning, late last night. And he's saying that he does expect to have an agreement sometime today - that there are still little differences that need to be worked out but they think that they could reach an agreement soon. But they're still negotiating.

KING: White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe.

Ayesha, thanks so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

KING: All right. So meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is ordering people to stay at home.

INSKEEP: And he's saying the police will enforce that. Johnson's orders will shut down nonessential stores and public venues like libraries, playgrounds and churches. Also banned are gatherings of more than two people who do not live together, and that includes weddings and other ceremonies - although, excluding funerals.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: No prime minister wants to enact measures like this. I know the damage that this disruption is doing and will do to people's lives, to their businesses and to their jobs. And that's why we've produced a huge and unprecedented program of support both for workers and for business.

INSKEEP: How long do these restrictions last? Johnson says 21 days to start, then they'll review it and decide if they need more. He said these restrictions will be reviewed and lifted as soon as possible, but they will last a while.

KING: All right. Let's go to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, the big question, I suppose, is - why these restrictions now? It's been a while.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. The reason, really, is people were not listening to the prime minister. He'd been urging people to do this. But you may have seen the photos on the Tube...

KING: Yes.

LANGFITT: ...Yesterday, which were just - I think people saw them all over the world, and I think people were horrified. People absolutely packed in, no social distancing whatsoever. So this clearly was not working. We had a glorious weekend last weekend. People were out in parks and, again, not socially distancing. Matt Hancock, the secretary of health here, called this really selfish behavior. And Johnson, you know, dropped the hammer because it wasn't - people were not doing what he was asking them to do.

KING: His speech was last night. It is now morning there. Can you suss out yet whether people are following the order?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I mean, it's obviously - we're talking about a city of 9 million. And it's been - Greater...


LANGFITT: ...London area is enormous. But I did drive around this morning out in the suburbs. And I got to say, where I am, out in a place called Weybridge, it's huge change. People are not out very much at all. Some people I saw jogging alone, maybe walking dogs. But the town itself, completely shut down except for grocery stores.

I went to the train station. The gates are open. Nobody's taking tickets. The 7:41 (ph) into London, which is normally packed, hundreds of people on the platform, there were just 10 people who got on. And I talked to one of the people - one of the train guards, who said there were health care workers and a construction worker, too, going in. But basically, people are keeping their distance and following the rules.

KING: Let me ask you about health care workers. You know, the big concern here in the U.S. is, are hospitals prepared? How is the health service there bearing up?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, it's been underfunded for a decade. This has been a huge story even before the coronavirus hit. And this is because the global financial crisis, there just wasn't the money. And we're already seeing strains, which is very worrisome because we're not anywhere near a peak. And there's been a shortage of protective gear. The doctors have actually come out - and nurses - been pretty critical publicly.

In one case in a hospital back last Thursday, they had to wear trash bags because they didn't have enough gear. And now the government's saying they're going to be shipping more than 2.5 million masks to people. But as this gets worse and worse, I think we may hear more from the medical staff, who are really worried and do want people to stay home.

KING: And is the U.K. economy shuttering the way it is here at home?

LANGFITT: It is. And I think it's going to have a huge impact. And for right now, it's just for three weeks. But people think it's going to last a lot longer than that.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome.


KING: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that the United States will cut a billion dollars in aid to Afghanistan this year alone.

INSKEEP: The secretary said that after a brief surprise visit to the Afghan capital. He was there to try to resolve a political crisis that has prevented Afghanistan's government and the Taliban from starting talks. They were supposed to talk after the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal a few weeks ago.

KING: NPR's Diaa Hadid is following all of this from Islamabad. Diaa, let me start by asking you, why did Mike Pompeo go to Kabul in person, especially in the middle of a coronavirus outbreak?

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Right. I think it was calculated as a dramatic political gesture, indeed, flying in an age of a pandemic. And it was meant to shake Afghan leaders into finding a resolution to this political crisis that has paralyzed Kabul and which is endangering parts of the U.S.-Taliban agreement.

KING: Remind us what the U.S.-Taliban agreement said.

HADID: Right. Let's go over this. In late February, America signed a deal with the Taliban that would allow most U.S. forces to withdraw from Afghanistan. And in exchange, the Taliban promised not to attack foreign forces or host international militant groups. There was a second part to that deal, as well, where the Taliban and the Afghans are meant to negotiate a peace agreement that would end the conflict in Afghanistan. But that can't move forward because of the bickering in Kabul.

KING: What is going on in Kabul exactly? What is the bickering about?

HADID: So this is the context. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, announced in February that he'd narrowly won elections that were held five months ago. But his rival didn't accept that and says he's the legitimate president. So there's now two governments in Afghanistan. And Pompeo was there to try reconcile them. And he failed.

And so in a statement issued last night, he said that the refusal of these political leaders to cooperate had dishonored Americans, Afghans and coalition partners who'd sacrificed their lives. It was quite harsh language from America's top diplomat.

KING: OK. So Pompeo is saying, we will cut a billion dollars in aid if you guys don't pull it together and figure out who the president of Afghanistan is, who's going to be talking to the Taliban. A billion dollars, Diaa, is a lot of money. Who's going to be affected if that money - if and when that money does not go to Afghanistan?

HADID: It's unclear because Pompeo wouldn't say how that money would be cut. But we do know that the Afghan government relies heavily on American aid, and they have now been silent. But Pompeo has said that these cuts can be reversed if Afghan leaders find a resolution. But if the impasse continues, another billion dollars in aid will be cut.

KING: OK. So he is ramping up the threat. Let me ask you about the two men each claiming to be president. Does either one of them look like he will back down in the face of this?

HADID: Right now, it's not clear. Ashraf Ghani's rival - his name is Abdullah Abdullah - had said that he was disappointed by Pompeo's visit. There's been nothing yet from the Afghan government. So it's unclear at this point how this is going to play out.

KING: NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad.

Diaa, thank you so much for your reporting. We appreciate it.

HADID: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.