News Items.

John Ellis
11 min readMar 30, 2020

1. Astronomers know surprisingly little about the structure of our Milky Way galaxy, including the number of spiral arms it has and the location of our sun within it. Recently, though, scientists have pieced together the best map yet of our galaxy by using data from several new research projects, particularly the Bar and Spiral Structure Legacy (BeSSeL) radio survey. The map reveals at least four major spiral arms in the Milky Way, as well as some smaller features, and shows that the sun lies almost exactly on the central plane of the disk of the galaxy. Read the whole thing. (via Scientific American)

2. Oil slumped to a 17-year low as coronavirus lockdowns cascaded through the world’s largest economies, leaving the market overwhelmed by cratering demand and a ballooning surplus of crude. Futures in London fell as much as 7.6% to the lowest since November 2002, while New York crude briefly dipped below $20 a barrel. Physical oil markets are struggling to store fuel, hit by a double whammy of virus restrictions eroding demand and a damaging war for market share between Saudi Arabia and Russia that has prices on track for the worst quarter on record.​ (via Bloomberg News)​

​3. As Covid-19 works its way through Asia, Europe and the Americas — forcing countries into lockdown, driving up unemployment and pummeling small-business owners — analysts say it’s only a matter of time before defaults start spreading within the record $47 trillion pile of household debt globally. The early indicators from China aren’t pretty. Overdue credit-card debt swelled last month by about 50% from a year earlier, according to executives at two banks who asked not to be named discussing internal figures. Qudian Inc., a Beijing-based online lender, said its delinquency ratio jumped to 20% in February from 13% at the end of last year. China Merchants Bank Co., one of the country’s biggest providers of consumer credit, said this month that it “pressed the pause button” on its credit-card business after a “significant” increase in past-due loans. An estimated 8 million people in China lost their jobs in February.​ (via Bloomberg News)​

​4. Economic sentiment in the euro area plunged the most on record after the furious spread of the coronavirus forced businesses in vast parts of the region shut and prospects dwindled that life will return to normal any time soon. The European Commission reading — following similarly downbeat reports out of the region’s biggest economies — comes at the end of a quarter that saw the outlook for the world and its economy thrown into disarray. New Year hopes that a calming in trade tensions would allow growth to stabilize have given way to panic in markets about a recession even greater than that experienced after the 2008 financial crisis.​ (via Bloomberg News)​​

5. Congress has passed a $2 trillion rescue plan but before those funds start to flow, American companies from the owner of a single liquor store in Boston to corporate giants like Macy’s, must decide what to do about April’s bills: Which obligations do they pay and which can they put off? How many employees can they afford to keep on the payroll? Can they get a break on rent? The decisions they make this week could shape how deeply the economy is damaged by the coronavirus pandemic.​ (via The Wall Street Journal)​​

6. Governments and central banks need to step up efforts urgently to support their economies in the face of the coronavirus crisis, the head of the Bank for International Settlements said on Sunday. General Manager Agustín Carstens, who heads the BIS — an umbrella group for the world’s central banks — wrote an opinion piece ​published ​Sunday saying “urgent” solutions beyond those used during the 2008 financial crisis were needed. Rules brought in after the 2008 crash were designed to prevent banks overextending themselves, but the worry now is that they are not stepping in and lending when the capital markets have slammed shut for many firms. “To give viable businesses a lifeline to tide them over the economic sudden stop wrought by Covid-19, a solution is needed to complete the last mile from potential lenders to those firms at the edge of the precipice,” Carstens said.​ (via Reuters, Financial Times)

7. China’s central bank cut the interest rate it charges on loans to banks by the biggest amount since 2015 as authorities ramp up their response to the worsening economic impact from the coronavirus pandemic. The People’s Bank of China reduced the interest rate on 7-day reverse repurchase agreements to 2.2% from 2.4% when it injected 50 billion yuan ($7.1 billion) into the banking system, according to a statement Monday. The central bank said this will keep liquidity sufficient to help the real economy.​ (via Bloomberg News)​

8. The Federal Reserve quickly deployed a half-dozen emergency lending programs over the past two weeks to ensure cash keeps coursing through the U.S. financial system. Now, Congress wants it to go much further, ap​proving $454 billion to reload the Fed’s own ability to lend. Washington is relying on the Fed, to an unprecedented degree in peacetime, to preserve business balance sheets after elected officials and private industry have put the economy into the equivalent of a medically induced coma to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.​ (via The Wall Street Journal)​

9. President Trump abruptly abandoned his ambition to return American life to normal by Easter, heeding advice from the government’s top doctors that re-opening the U.S. economy in two weeks risks greater death as the coronavirus outbreak accelerates.​ ​In a stark shift from two weeks of measured optimism, the president said his guidelines for Americans to practice “social distancing” would remain in place until at least April 30, and he warned that 100,000 or more people may die.​ (via Bloomberg News)​

10. Two of the top doctors advising President Trump on the coronavirus pandemic warned on Sunday that as many as 200,000 Americans could die during the outbreak, even with much of the country already under stay-at-home orders and practicing social distancing. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said during a White House briefing that the grim projection was based on scientific modeling, and the forecasts had convinced Mr. Trump to extend social distancing guidelines through the end of April. “I think it’s entirely conceivable that if we do not mitigate to the extent that we’re trying to do that you could reach that number,” Dr. Fauci said.​ (via The New York Times)​

11. If the rate of growth in coronavirus cases in the New York metro area continues, it will suffer a more severe outbreak than those experienced in Wuhan, China, or the Lombardy region of Italy. There is no guarantee, of course, that current trends will continue. What has happened to this point can’t be used to predict what will happen next. It is possible that social distancing will soon slow or arrest the growth of cases. But what can be said is that the New York metro area has had less success in flattening the curve, at this point in its outbreak, than Wuhan or the Lombardy region did at the same point in theirs. And some other American metropolitan areas appear to be on a similar path. (via The New York Times)​​

12. The coronavirus pandemic is forcing the fastest reallocation of labor since World War II, with companies and governments mobilizing an army of idled workers into new activities that are urgently needed. Around the world, former hotel, restaurant and airline staff are moving to grocers, online retailers and hospitals as parts of the economy are shuttered to prevent the spread of the disease — and essential goods and services are strained. The shifts also include some governments urging furloughed workers and students to join in planting and picking fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile in Germany, McDonald’s Corp. is lending staff to two big grocery chains desperate for workers.​ (via The Wall Street Journal)​

13. ​In one of the biggest migrations in India’s modern history, hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers have begun long journeys on foot to get home, having been rendered homeless and jobless by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus. With businesses shut down in cities across the country, vast numbers of migrants — many of whom lived and ate where they worked — were suddenly without food and shelter. Soup kitchens in Delhi, the capital, have been overwhelmed. So far, more than a dozen migrant laborers have lost their lives in different parts of the country as they tried to return to their home, hospital officials said. (via The New York Times​)

14. ​Indonesia may soon quarantine almost 30 million people in its capital and surrounding areas to curb the spread of the coronavirus that’s killed more than 100 people in the world’s fourth-most populous nation. Police and transport officials conducted drills on limiting the movement of people from the Greater Jakarta area at the weekend, the Jakarta Post reported. The governor of West Java, Ridwan Kamil, said a decision on the lockdown, including in the worst virus-hit areas of the province adjoining Jakarta, was expected on Monday. (via Bloomberg)

15. As of today, Iran has 38,309 confirmed cases and 2640 deaths — the highest totals in the Middle East. The latest model from scientists at the University of New South Wales predicts that by late June, Iran could see 48 million cases — more than half of its population — without major efforts to curb infections. Another simulation forecasts that, without dramatic interventions, Iran’s death toll could eventually eclipse 100,000.​ (via University of New South Wales​,, MedRxiv pre-print)

1​6​. Russia, the largest country by area, will temporarily shut all its borders starting today after the number of coronavirus infections increased sharply over the last week. Health officials on Saturday reported 228 new cases of coronavirus overnight, bringing the total to 1,264, with four deaths attributed to the illness. The order, posted on the government website, followed increasingly harsh restrictions of movements around the country. Moscow’s mayor shut all non-essential business on Saturday and recommended everyone remain at home to reduce contagion. The government halted all international flights on Friday and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin called on regions to close most businesses, while stopping short of ordering them to do so. (via Bloomberg News)

17.Malaysia arrested hundreds of people in the last week for violating restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus, a senior minister said on Sunday, amid a spike in the number of deaths linked to the outbreak. Defense minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob told reporters 649 people were detained on Saturday, while 73 people have plead guilty to offenses such as gathering in groups, obstructing public officials, and breaking through police blockades. This was in addition to 614 people arrested since the movement curbs were imposed on March 18. (via South China Morning Post, Free Malaysia Today)

18. ​Africa has reached a “break the glass moment”, an emergency in which international actors need to take drastic action if the world’s poorest continent is to avoid a human and economic catastrophe, Ken Ofori-Atta, Ghana’s finance minister, told the Financial Times. Mr Ofori-Atta, who is also chairman of the joint World Bank-IMF Development Committee, said the two institutions had acted swiftly, but would need to do much more. They should provide governments with liquidity support as well as money to fight the virus and debt relief, he said, adding that the coronavirus threatened to overwhelm Africa’s inadequate health systems. Last month, Bill Gates warned that the pandemic could kill 10 million Africans if it were allowed to rip through the continent and Imperial College London published a study saying that, if governments failed to act, the virus could claim 40 million lives worldwide. (via Financial Times, Imperial College London)

19. ​Africa is two to three weeks away from the worst of the coronavirus storm and needs an emergency economic stimulus of $100 billion to bolster preventative measures and support its fragile healthcare systems, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Almost half of the funds could come from waiving interest payments to multilateral institutions. That would give countries the fiscal space needed to impose social-distancing measures, widen social safety nets and equip hospitals to treat the sick ahead of an expected surge in infections, UNECA Executive Secretary Vera Songwe said by phone from Washington. (via Bloomberg​ News​)

20. ​The Taliban on Saturday attacked several provinces in northern Afghanistan, overrunning large parts of one district even as American diplomats expressed optimism that a peace process stalled over the release of prisoners was getting back on track. The insurgents launched major assaults in three northern province — in Kunduz, whose capital was overrun by the Taliban repeatedly in recent years, as well as in Faryab and Badakhshan. The fighting rages despite an appeal for a cease-fire on humanitarian grounds to slow the spread of the coronavirus across the country.​ (via The New York Times)​

21. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are putting $25 million of their money behind an effort to develop therapeutic treatments for the Covid-19 coronavirus. It’s one of the biggest gifts yet from tech billionaires in response to the crisis. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a philanthropy run by the couple, is sinking the cash into an effort run by Zuckerberg’s mentor, Bill Gates, that is exploring new possible antiviral drugs that could protect people from the disease. The Gates Foundation organized the effort, called the “COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator” with a $50 million gift last month, and the donation from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative brings the total funding to $125 million.​ (via Recode)​

22. Tim Boyle, who serves as president and CEO of Columbia Sportswear Company, will be reducing his annual salary to $10,000 as his company continues to pay its employees, despite its stores being closed, during the COVID-19 pandemic. A spokesperson for the sportswear brand confirmed the move by Boyle to The Hill on Sunday. The representative also added that a number of other company executives will be taking 15 percent pay cuts as well.​ (via The Hill)​

— — — —

Quick Links: Financial Times Special Report: The Future of Energy. North Korea fires test missiles amid worries about outbreak. US-led coalition pulls out of another Iraq base. Taliban refuses to talk to Afghan government’s negotiating team. Google is using AI to design chips that will accelerate AI. Big hedge funds raise money to capitalize on market turmoil. Tiger Global builds stake in TikTok-owner ByteDance. Capital One got CFTC waiver after oil price plunge increased swap exposure. Easyjet has grounded its entire fleet of 344 planes. How 3D printing could save lives in the coronavirus outbreak. Facebook pledges $100 million for news outlets hit by coronavirus outbreak. You didn’t ask, but the answer is ‘no.

Coronavirus Links: Video of the Day: Dr. David Price on “empowering and protecting families” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two new road maps lay out possible paths to end coronavirus lockdowns. Desperate for Covid-19 answers, U.S. doctors turn to colleagues in China. Tens of thousands of scientists are redeploying to fight coronavirus. Viral proteins point to potential treatments. India orders states to quarantine laborers as infections rise. Syria reports first coronavirus death as fears grow of major outbreak. South Africa uses water cannon and rubber bullets to enforce lockdown. WHO says it’s working with Taiwan experts after video goes viral. Moscow orders residents to stay at home as coronavirus spreads. Mexico’s president shifts tone on coronavirus, urges people to stay home, warns of dire consequences. Amazon workers to strike at New York site on virus concerns.

Political Links: Japan ruling party to propose stimulus package worth 16–17% of GDP. EU project in ‘mortal danger’ if Italy and Spain are abandoned. Canada debates offering physician-assisted death to patients who aren’t terminally ill. Trump extends social distancing guidelines through April 30. After three coronavirus stimulus packages, Congress is already prepping phase four. Coronavirus cripples voter registration efforts. ABC News/WaPo poll: Biden consolidates support, but trails badly in enthusiasm. Trump brags about high TV viewership of coronavirus briefings. Texas declares gun stores essential businesses. ‘Netflix for 3-D printed guns.”



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.