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Belarus, Coronavirus, Barack Obama: Your Thursday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering early mishandling of the coronavirus by local Chinese officials, E.U. leaders’ rejection of Belarus’s election results and the return of Barack Obama to the national stage.

For months, a global backlash has built against China over its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

But a new U.S. intelligence report concludes that top officials in Beijing were in the dark in early January and that it was local officials in Wuhan and in Hubei Province who had tried to hide information from central leadership.

The internal report, a consensus of the C.I.A. and other agencies, could lead to a shift in U.S. policy on China and how we talk about the virus’s timeline. It is also consistent with assessments by experts of China’s opaque governance system.

Details: Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, current and former American officials say.

Impact: “It makes a huge difference if it was Wuhan or Beijing,” said Michael Pillsbury, a China scholar at the Hudson Institute who informally advises President Trump. It could give American officials a push to try to engage in good-faith negotiations with Beijing, he said.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other coronavirus developments:

  • The number of cases worldwide has exceeded 22 million, according to a New York Times database. More than 780,000 people have died.

  • Finland, where total cases number 7,805, announced new restrictions on incoming travelers from Iceland, Greece, Malta, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Cyprus, San Marino and Japan, starting Monday.

  • The head of the organization responsible for approving vaccines in Germany expects the first doses of a coronavirus vaccine to be available in the country by the beginning of next year.

  • Britain announced a rapid expansion of one of its testing programs, which selects a random sample of the population regardless of symptoms.

  • At $30 billion, South Africa’s stimulus package is the largest relief effort in its history as the country struggles with almost 600,000 coronavirus cases. But the government’s efforts have been plagued by accusations of fraud and mismanagement.

They did not call explicitly for another election, which the country’s opposition wants, but offered to “accompany a peaceful transition of power in Belarus.”

Official remarks: Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said that any resolution of the crisis “must be found in Belarus, not in Brussels or in Moscow.” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said it would “repurpose” $63 million in assistance away from the Belarusian government toward victims of the violence, “civil society and independent media” and the fight against the coronavirus.

What this means: While anxious to defend democratic values, Europe’s leaders are treading carefully to avoid providing a pretext for further state violence or for a Russian intervention. The E.U.’s ability to enforce its demands is thin — no European country is going to go to war over Belarus, and relatively harsh sanctions against Belarus and Russia are already in place.

It took Apple 42 years to reach $1 trillion in value — and just two more to get to $2 trillion, reaching that milestone on Wednesday, when shares climbed 1.4 percent to $468.65 in midday trading.

Apple is the first U.S. company to reach a $2 trillion valuation, capping a staggering ascent that began during the pandemic and cementing its place as the world’s most valuable public company.

The pandemic has been a bonanza for the tech giants. Stock prices of Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet have soared since the Federal Reserve announced measures to calm investors in March.

In June, two German tourists took a dip in the Grand Canal in Venice. Last month, an Austrian tourist broke the toe of a plaster statue of Napoleon’s sister in an Italian museum, and this month, a French tourist used a black felt-tip pen to immortalize her stay in Florence on the city’s famed Ponte Vecchio.

Foreign tourism in Italy has dropped by the double digits this year — delivering a significant blow to the country’s economy — but Italians say that shouldn’t give tourists license to run amok, and officials are trying to put tougher punishments in place. “We’re not in the Wild West,” one said.

U.S. presidential campaign: Democrats formally nominated Joe Biden for president and Senator Kamala Harris accepted the nomination for vice president. Former President Barack Obama also spoke on Wednesday, saying the Trump administration would “tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”

Mali: Military leaders behind the coup that toppled the country’s leaders vowed to hold new elections. The streets of Bamako, the capital, exploded with both jubilation and gunfire after President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and his prime minister, Boubou Cissé, were detained.

Snapshot: Above, Venezuelan police officers arrested people for gathering in the street in late July. Nicolás Maduro’s government is detaining thousands to halt the spread of the coronavirus — as well as doctors who question his policies on the virus — and marking the homes of people believed to have been infected.

What we’re reading: This Washington Post article about ditching “toxic positivity” and grappling with negative emotions. A good reminder that everything doesn’t have to be OK.

Cook: If you’re tired of tuna, this chickpea salad sandwich is just the thing.

Go: This was supposed to be the year of Raphael. Five hundred years after the Renaissance artist’s death, the museum shows, conferences and lectures have gone virtual.

Watch: These animated series depict the richness and complexities of Black families.

There are endless possibilities for entertaining and nurturing yourself and your family safely. At Home has our full collection of ideas.

Iran, a country hit early and hard by the coronavirus, is in the midst of a second wave.

The country’s Health Ministry announced on Wednesday that it had reached 20,000 deaths from the virus, but health experts inside and outside Iran, and even members of Parliament, suggest that the number may be many times higher. Jonathan Wolfe, who writes our coronavirus newsletter, spoke to Farnaz Fassihi, who covers Iran for The Times.

What’s the situation in Iran?

It’s very bad. The country’s in the thick of a second surge worse than the first one, in March. A majority of provinces, including the capital, are “red zones.” Doctors are saying hospitals and I.C.U. beds are full. Meanwhile, there are some restrictions for public gatherings but, generally, it’s open for business.

Even by the government’s own numbers, cases are on the rise. What happened?

They opened too soon. When the virus first arrived in the country, they closed down for just two weeks during the New Year holiday in mid-March. They didn’t meet any of the benchmarks when they opened. There’s no contact tracing. There’s no quarantine.

What is the mood among Iranians?

In the early months, people were very scared. They were self-isolating and staying home and not sending their kids to school, even when the schools were still open. But I think, as time has passed, like a lot of places, we see that people are getting more reckless.

There’s also a nuanced dynamic. This is a government that for 40 years has told people what to do, how to dress, how to behave — and many people’s mind-set is to always defy what the government says. So now, when the government tells them, “Stay home, wear a mask,” they’re like: “No. We don’t trust you. And you don’t tell us what to do.”

And so for Iran, I think the challenge to contain a pandemic may be greater than other countries because the government is dealing with 70 million people whose default mode is to defy it.

That’s it for this briefing. See you next time.

— Isabella and Natasha

Thank you
To Melissa Clark for the recipe, and to Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the rest of the break from the news. You can reach the team at


• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about what recent cuts to the U.S. Postal Service mean ahead of a presidential election.

• Here’s our Mini Crossword, and a clue: Another name for our sun (three letters). You can find all our puzzles here.

• The Times introduced the Headway initiative, a philanthropy-funded project that will task a team of journalists with investigating national and global challenges.

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