Coronavirus, Syria, Ben Affleck: Your Wednesday Briefing


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Good morning.

We’re covering the latest in the coronavirus outbreak, a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and Europe’s view of the U.S. election.

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ImagePassengers on the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, Japan, on Tuesday.
Credit…Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Repatriations of cruise ship passengers

The first of what is expected to be an exodus of 500 passengers have walked off the Diamond Princess cruise ship, an epidemiological nightmare in the coronavirus outbreak.

Several countries have arranged charter flights to take their nationals home after they leave the boat. Here are the latest updates and maps of where the virus has spread.

In Europe: With about 40 confirmed cases in the region, fear itself is proving contagious; people and places associated with the illness are facing a new social stigma.

Economic impact: HSBC, one of Hong Kong’s most important banks, said Tuesday it would cut 35,000 jobs over the next three years, and U.S. stocks fell a day after Apple said it would miss its sales forecast because of the disruption in China.

Perspective on China: Li Yuan, our New New World columnist, writes, “Beijing has shown the world that it can shut down entire cities, build a hospital in 10 days and keep 1.4 billion people at home for weeks. But it has also shown a glaring weakness that imperils lives and threatens efforts to contain the outbreak: It is unable to work with its own people.”

After years of war, a vast catastrophe

A humanitarian disaster is unfolding on Syria’s border with Turkey, where hundreds of thousands of Syrians are living in flimsy tents or sleeping rough in bitterly cold conditions.

About 900,000 people have fled their homes since December as the Russian-backed Syrian government accelerated its campaign to recapture control of Idlib, the last province held by the opposition.

Our correspondent is there. “It’s like the end of the world,” Fouad Sayed Issa, a Syrian aid worker, told her.

Turkish reaction: After already taking in more than three million Syrian refugees, Turkey has closed its border since 2015 to prevent a further influx. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that Syrian government troops withdraw to previously agreed positions by the end of February.

Related: A Turkish activist, Osman Kavala, was rearrested and detained immediately after he was acquitted in a court case widely criticized as a crackdown on opposition voices. The move resembled “a deliberate and planned cruelty,” a campaigner for Amnesty International said.

Europe grapples with a possible second Trump term

The consensus among European diplomats and analysts at the Munich security conference last weekend is that President Trump will probably be re-elected in November.

And what would that mean for global affairs? Our chief European diplomatic correspondent found that many believe that the answer is a drastic, and potentially permanent, shift — for which Europe remains woefully unprepared.

Policy differences would almost certainly widen on issues including China, Iran and Africa, as well as trade and climate change.

U.S. moves: The State Department will now treat members of China’s five main news agencies as state operatives, which some fear will invite China to retaliate against American journalists.

In Africa: The U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, where evidence of China’s influence is unescapable.

If you have 9 minutes, this is worth it

The iPhone at the Deathbed

In a collision of technology and culture, we are beginning to photograph our dead. Again.

In the age of iPhones and Facebook, such photos can be jarring. But for families who follow natural death practices, post-mortem photography is an extension and celebration of that choice, and a continuation of a practice with a long history.

Here’s what else is happening

Afghan elections: President Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner of a presidential vote Tuesday after months of delayed results. But the disputed announcement threatens to tip the country into a political crisis on the cusp of a U.S. peace deal with the Taliban.

Trump pardons: The U.S. president granted clemency to 11 controversial figures who had been convicted of charges that included fraud, corruption and lying. Critics accused him of abusing the pardon power to reward friends, and to repair the reputations of undeserving felons.

Ukraine battle: Russian-backed separatists tried to break through the trench line in the stalemated war in the country’s east, killing one separatist soldier and wounding four others in what was seen as an effort to gain leverage during settlement talks. The Kremlin denied involvement.

Turmoil in Venezuela: The Trump administration imposed new sanctions against a Russian oil giant that is helping Venezuela’s ruling government stay afloat. Experts said the sanctions would lash Venezuela’s already-faltering economy, but might have only a limited impact on global markets.

Snapshot: Above, a derelict cargo ship washed ashore near a fishing village in Ireland, after Storm Dennis lashed Europe. The rusty ship had somehow managed to survive a journey thousands of miles from southeast of Bermuda, where it was first abandoned in late 2018.

Affleck, uninhibited: Ben Affleck, the writer, actor and Oscar-winning director, long tried to drink away his pain. Now, with four movies coming out this year, he’s trying honesty instead.

What we’re reading: This joint undercover investigation by Correctiv and Frontal21, two German news media outlets, into the activities in Germany of the Heartland Institute, a U.S. organization that promotes the denial of climate science. Our climate reporter John Schwartz calls it “fascinating.”

Now, a break from the news

Cook: Bittersweet brownie shortbread layers two treats in one bar cookie.

Read: In the book of essays “Minor Feelings,” the poet Cathy Park Hong writes about Asian identity without the flattening forces of other people’s expectations.

Listen: The Angolan-Portuguese star Pongo is winning fans by putting a global spin on African music. “Canto” is from her new EP, “Uwa.”

Smarter Living: Experts say the best way to form healthy habits is to tie them into existing patterns. Here’s more advice. (You can get the same tips delivered each day on Alexa smart speakers.)

And now for the Back Story on …

Covering the courts

Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault trial went to a New York City jury on Tuesday. Court reporting for such big cases is a cornerstone of Times journalism. We asked the reporter covering the Weinstein trial and other court veterans to tell us the tricks of their trade.

Jan Ransom had a lot of early starts. Now, she’s waiting for a verdict in the Weinstein case, but during the trial, the line to enter the courtroom in Manhattan Criminal Court stretched down the block by 6 a.m. Once the day’s proceedings began, around 9:30 a.m., she listened closely all day, every day, watching the movie producer’s facial expressions, noting the testimony of the witnesses and recording the reactions of the jury.

In many federal courthouses, cellphones, laptops and recording devices are not permitted, which means reporters must often take notes by hand, then call their editors or other reporters to verbally relay the news.

“You’re back to being a reporter from the 1950s,” said John Schwartz, a Times reporter who previously worked as the legal correspondent for the National desk. “You phone it in and compose it in your head and provide that first bit of information just as quick as you can.”

Unlike courtroom dramas on TV, there are often hours of proceedings that can include long exchanges between lawyers and the judge. Skilled reporters are able to discern the new and important developments.

“It’s 99 percent tedium, but you have to be listening and then suddenly someone will say something,” said Ben Weiser, who has covered the Manhattan federal courts for The Times for many years, “and that will be your lead.”

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

— Sofia and Priya

Thank you
To Mark Josephson and Eleanor Stanford for the break from the news. Katie Van Syckle wrote today’s Back Story. You can reach the team at [email protected].

• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about Michael Bloomberg’s history of political and charitable contributions.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword puzzle — a five-by-five grid, with no blackouts. Your clue: Core belief (five letters, of course). You can find all our puzzles here.
• The Times’s correspondent Rukmini Callimachi spoke to Elle magazine about how she considers her clothing and self-presentation when covering Islamic extremism.


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