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News Brief: Pandemic Death Toll, Hong Kong Protests, Florida Law

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We begin the week with the U.S. on the verge of a grim milestone - nearly 100,000 deaths from COVID-19.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. The U.S. has had more than a million and a half confirmed coronavirus cases. That's far more than any other country. A recent surge in cases in Brazil gives that country the second-highest tally with 350,000 cases. As a result, the White House has put in place a new ban on travelers from Brazil. It did that yesterday.

MARTIN: Jason Beaubien is NPR's global health and development correspondent, and he joins us now. Hey, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: So tell us more about this latest travel ban.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. So it applies both to Brazilians and any non-U.S. citizens who've been in Brazil over the last 14 days. So any Americans who were there are still allowed to come back but, say, someone from Argentina, if they'd been in Brazil over the last two weeks, they can't come now. Brazil is now being added to a list of these earlier travel bans that are still in effect, we have to remember. You know, this includes China, Iran, nearly 30 European countries. We still have a ban on nonessential travel to Canada and Mexico. So while there's a lot of talk about reopening the U.S., there isn't movement in terms of reopening international travel. In fact, we're seeing with this new ban in Brazil that we're moving in the opposite direction.

MARTIN: So the United States has the worst outbreak right now. Brazil comes in a distant second. Where are the other hot spots?

BEAUBIEN: Well, so parts of Latin America are really getting hit hard. You know, in addition to Brazil, Peru, Chile, Colombia and Mexico are all seeing cases surge at the moment. The other two places where COVID is really taking off right now - and both of these places, it's quite concerning - are Russia and India. Russia, actually, has the third-highest number of cases behind the U.S. and Brazil, and India is a concern given its huge population, crowded cities, the potential for a respiratory virus like this, that it could really take off there. So both of those two countries are very concerning.

MARTIN: Are there places where things are going well at this point?

BEAUBIEN: You know, absolutely. You know, there are sort of two categories of doing well. You've got places like New Zealand and Hong Kong and Taiwan where they've brought transmission down essentially to zero. And they're only dealing with imported cases that are coming from outside their borders. And then you've got countries like Italy, Spain, France where they are still dealing with a few hundred cases a day, but the trend line is very much in the right direction. They had these large outbreaks. They've gotten those outbreaks under control. And they're headed towards zero or at least in that direction. And it's important to note that this isn't just some automatic thing that the virus sort of burns itself out because if you look at the U.K., their outbreak, it started a bit later than mainland Europe, but they haven't seen that sharp downward trend that you've seen in places like Spain and France and Italy. They've sort of plateaued at a couple thousand cases a day, and they're still sort of struggling with this.

MARTIN: Do we know why, Jason? I mean, you've been covering this pandemic since January. Are we seeing any patterns develop among countries that are doing better or worse in terms of their response?

BEAUBIEN: You know, so some countries probably just got lucky - right? - and the virus didn't end up there. They didn't have as strong an outbreak. Maybe they got earlier warnings. But I've been talking to a bunch of analysts about this recently, and there are some trends emerging about what type of government seems to be better able to respond to this. You know, if you look at the political leaders in the countries that are having the toughest time right now with this virus, they have some similarities. You've got the Trump administration here in the U.S., Bolsonaro in Brazil, Boris Johnson in the U.K., Vladimir Putin in Russia; these are all very combative administrations. And on this issue, they were either dismissive or at least indecisive early on. The places that have done well, you know, they have confronted it quickly, decisively, and that seems to really have helped.

MARTIN: NPR's Jason Beaubien. Jason, we appreciate it. Thank you so much.

BEAUBIEN: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Despite the pandemic, protests in Hong Kong kicked off again with thousands of people marching and singing in the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

GREENE: What brought them out to sing that protest anthem was a new so-called national security bill that Chinese lawmakers in Beijing are taking up today. This law would make nearly any kind of dissent against China illegal in Hong Kong. And protesters say this law would end what limited autonomy Hong Kong has left. And they are calling for more mass demonstrations.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Emily Feng with us from Beijing. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So protests are back. This has become a familiar refrain in Hong Kong. But these, what about the size? Are they as large as the ones that we saw last year against the extradition bill with Beijing?

FENG: They were not. Thousands of people, so maybe 2,000 or 3,000, turned up yesterday, but they turned up despite fears of a second wave of coronavirus and social distancing rules. Some people who turned up were holding independence posters for Hong Kong, which is a more radical position than what most people had embraced earlier. But there was a sense of fatigue. Previous marches last year like you mentioned had attracted tens of thousands of people. Those yesterday were much smaller, and they were largely peaceful. The police did fire tear gas and water cannons at them multiple times. Protesters told me they just didn't feel like demonstrations were effective anymore. It's just too late. And going to protests has become more dangerous. Police have been more aggressive in subduing people. Many protesters and activists have been arrested and sentenced in the last month. Here's Kelvin Lam. I spoke to him today. He's a district councilor, and he was part of this pro-democracy faction that won in landslide local elections last year.

KELVIN LAM: The reaction from residents is quite pessimistic. A lot of them were not in a fighting mood. I can view it - I can feel that people are thinking about leaving Hong Kong now because they also call this an end game or the beginning of the end.

FENG: I should note Lam has not given up hope. He's staying. He's campaigning for elections in September. And he says protesters might just be saving their energy for June protests.

MARTIN: So describe what he means there, the beginning of the end. I mean, what would this law do if passed?

FENG: We've only seen a broad proposal for the law, but it would criminalize four types of very sweeping behavior - secession, subversion of state power, foreign interference and terrorism. And it's so sweeping that it could destroy what limited autonomy Hong Kong has left. Beijing, of course, argues this is necessary because of violent protests and what it calls secessionists who are destroying the city. China's legislature is actually discussing a proposal for this law today. That motion will pass on Thursday, and a smaller group of Beijing lawmakers will likely pass the bill in June.

MARTIN: So is that even allowed, Emily? I mean, there's this principle - one country, two systems, Hong Kong has its own legislature and government. Can Beijing simply declare its own laws in the city?

FENG: Right. It's unclear whether this would actually violate an international treaty with the U.K., which should only expire in 2047. Hong Kong has its own constitution, which guarantees certain civil liberties. So would this national security law then supersede that constitution? And then you run into implementation issues. How do you litigate that law in a Hong Kong court when it's passed by Beijing?

MARTIN: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Thanks, Emily.

FENG: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. Voting is set to change in Florida, at least for a certain segment of the population there.

GREENE: Right. So we're talking about people who have previously been incarcerated, and voting is going to change for them in that they are going to get to do it. A federal judge knocked down a Florida law that required felons to settle court fees and fines before they could regain the right to vote. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle argued that the state's requirement essentially amounted to a poll tax targeting formerly incarcerated Floridians. This ruling clears the path for many additional thousands of Floridians to register in time for the presidential elections.

MARTIN: All right. We've got Danny Rivero of WLRN in Miami with us this morning. Danny, thanks for being here. Can you just start by getting us up to speed? What led to this ruling?

DANIEL RIVERO, BYLINE: Right. So this goes back to 2018. In 2018, Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution, and that amendment automatically restored the right to vote for most people with felony convictions who had, quote, "completed all the terms of their sentence, including probation and parole." On the heels of passing that amendment, the state legislature passed a law defining what all terms of their sentence means. And they defined it to mean that someone needs to pay all the court-imposed fines, fees and restitution in order to get their rights back. Now, when that passed, 17 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit, along with organizations like the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, saying that this law basically subverted the will of the voters who passed the initial amendment. And they said that a lack of income had now become the only barrier to vote for a lot of people. And they said that the Florida law and the way that it was actually being carried out by the state made it essentially impossible for someone to get their voting rights restored, in large part because the state has been just unable, in many cases, to tell people how much they even owe in the first place.

MARTIN: Wow. So how does this ruling play into that? I mean, what does it do to that law?

RIVERO: So federal Judge Robert Hinkle, he struck down some of the largest, most controversial parts of that law. He said if someone is genuinely unable to pay - that's the phrase, genuinely unable to pay the money that they owe - that they should still be allowed to vote. But if you can pay, you still have to pay the money. And he also said the law is discriminatory based on people's wealth because wealthier people who commit crimes would be able to vote. He said it lacked due process because it's proven impossible for many people to get information about how much they owe. And he also said that when it comes to the money that's owed, only restitution and punitive fines can be collected because court costs and fees are taxes in all but name, he says. So that would be a poll tax if people were required to pay that.

MARTIN: Well, let me just finish by asking you this. I mean, this could restore voting rights for, you know, up to 800,000 voters in Florida. Could this have an effect elsewhere in the country, though, set some kind of precedent?

RIVERO: So a number of states have filed friends of the court briefs siding with Florida in this case for a pretty interesting reason. That's states like Alabama, Georgia; it's also Kentucky, Arizona, Utah and some other states. And those states have basically been saying that they are relying on some of these same legal fees to collect revenue for their states and finance their court systems. And they say that they need that leverage of blocking someone's ability to vote until they get that money back. Most immediately, if Florida appeals this - and they are broadly expected to appeal this - this ruling would impact Georgia and Alabama, which both only restore voting rights when all fines and fees are connected to the case. And from there, you know, there's a lot of whispers for this case that this is exactly the kind of thing that might end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. And, of course, if it does go that route and Florida loses, then this ruling would apply to all the different states and territories of the United States.

MARTIN: All right. Danny Rivero from our member station WLRN in Miami covering this story for us. Danny, we appreciate it. Thank you.

RIVERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.