Americans Join Coronavirus Lawsuit to Make China Pay

WASHINGTON, (EUJUNG CHO-VOANEWS.COM).- - In less than a month, more than 5,000 Americans have joined a class-action lawsuit in Florida seeking reparations from the Chinese government for COVID-19 damages. The plaintiffs claim to have suffered huge losses due to Beijing’s negligence in containing the virus. Similar class-action lawsuits also were filed in Nevada and Texas.

“Our lawsuit addresses those who have been physically injured from exposure to the virus … it also addresses the commercial activity China has engaged in around the “wet markets” trade,” Berman Law Group, which filed the Florida suit, told VOA.

The law firm cited the ‘commercial activity’ and ‘personal injury’ exceptions under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act [FSIA] as legal grounds for suing China.

Chimene Keitner, professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, disagrees.

“If you read any of the cases that have been decided under the statute [FSIA], it is extremely clear that personal injury, the conduct of a Chinese official needs to happen in the territory of the U.S. for that to apply. And there’s no allegation of commercial activity here,” Chimene noted.

She added, “you can’t sue foreign states for their policy decisions.”

International tribunals

A potential U.S. lawsuit against China for coronavirus damages could be worth $1.2 trillion, according to British conservative think tank, the Henry Jackson Society. In its new report, the Henry Jackson Society said China is potentially liable for the damages incurred due to its early mishandling of the disease. Specifically, intentionally withholding information from the World Health Organization was cited as a violation of the International Health Regulations.

The think tank urged countries to sue China, laying out 10 different legal avenues to pursue, including the WHO, the International Court of Justice, Permanent Court of Arbitration, courts in Hong Kong, and the U.S.

“Not simply using one but using a combination of the legal avenues may prove to be the most effective way forward,” said Andrew Foxall, director of research at the Henry Jackson Society and co-author of the report, in an interview with VOA.

Countries, including the U.S., are unlikely to come forward, though, and make an official legal challenge against China over the coronavirus, according to David Fidler, visiting professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, and former legal consultant to the WHO.

“Epidemics could break out anywhere … So, there’s this shared interest not to throw what I call the normative boomerang,” said Fidler “Interestingly, countries have very strong common interest not to apply international law in a mechanical way in connection with infectious disease outbreaks.”

Transboundary harm

The customary law of ‘International Responsibility’ for damages caused to another nation was first recognized in the Trail Smelter arbitration in the 1920s.

A smelter in British Columbia, Canada, emitted toxic fumes and caused damage to the forests and crops in surrounding areas, and also across the Canada-U.S. border in Washington State. A tribunal was set up by Canada and the U.S. to resolve the dispute, and the Canadian government agreed to provide compensation.

Legal scholars draw parallels to Chinese responsibility in the spread of the coronavirus.

“If Canada had good environmental laws in place, the smelter wouldn’t be polluting and wouldn’t have done harm in the U.S. It looks related here. If China just maintained an adequate food safety regulatory regime, the harm wouldn’t have been spread,” said Russel Miller, professor of law at Washington and Lee University.

William Starshak, a finance attorney in Chicago, points out that it will be in China’s interest to assume responsibility, as Canada did.

“That actually will help China show itself to be a responsible citizen, but also to bring all of these claims, which are going to be diverse and have all sorts of geopolitical issues, come with a massive bill into one forum. Address them. It’s really the only way for China to move beyond this,” Starshak said.

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Trump Expects Deal on Oil Production to Lift Prices, Help Energy Industry 

WHITE HOUSE, (STEVE HERMAN-VOAEWS.COM)). - A three-way telephone call about oil production took place Thursday involving U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabian King Salman ahead of a deal announcement by the OPEC cartel and other countries.  

"We had a big talk as to oil production and OPEC and making it so that our industry does well and the oil industry does better than it’s doing right now," Trump said at the start of a daily briefing by the White House coronavirus task force. “It was a very good call.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has depressed demand for energy, sending prices lower and endangering jobs in the industry.

OPEC and its allies, led by Russia, agreed Thursday to collectively cut oil output by more than a fifth. They said they expected the United States and other producers to join their effort to lift prices.

The unprecedented cut of 15 million barrels per day, however, still will not remove enough crude from production to stop storage facilities from becoming full, a problem Trump noted in his remarks to reporters. 

“Oil today is not selling,” the president said. “We are storing millions of barrels of oil that nobody ever thought would even be possible.”

With administration officials expressing hope Thursday that the pandemic could be peaking in current hot spots, such as New York City, the global epicenter of infection, there is an increasing focus on considering when to reopen the U.S. economy, largely shut down because of the virus. 

“We need to do it responsibly, and we’re going to follow the data” coming from public health reports, Vice President Mike Pence assured reporters at the task force’s daily briefing. 

The Trump administration is close to announcing a second task force that will focus on economic issues.

Trump has made it clear he is impatient for a return to normalcy for American business but has said he will listen to his coronavirus task force team on timing.

Some of the president’s aides are reportedly pushing for a May 1 reopening for businesses. 

An additional task force focused on the economy, rather than the one making its recommendations primarily based on epidemiology, could end up giving the president conflicting advice. 

Some influential voices want economist Art Laffer, a polarizing figure in his field, to head the new task force. Laffer, who was awarded a White House medal last year by Trump, for decades has touted tax cuts as paying for themselves through fast growth. 

Laffer’s critics say that almost never is the case in practice, although his theory was adopted by the Reagan administration and the economist is a mentor of one of Trump’s key officials in this arena, Larry Kudlow, who heads the National Economic Council. 

The new task force “must focus its efforts on ensuring that the American people, not just wealthy shareholders and corporations, receive the assistance they need,” said Morris Pearl, chairman of Patriotic Millionaires. “This country can afford for corporate shareholders like myself to lose a small chunk of our investments over the next several months. It cannot afford to leave tens of millions of American workers without adequate financial support for any amount of time.” 

Pearl, a former executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, said he was not confident of that happening if Laffer was in charge of the task force. 

“The godfather of trickle-down economics has nothing to offer besides more tax cuts for the rich, and in fact he’s already said that he believes it's bad to send additional aid to laid-off workers. If given free rein, I have no doubt that Art Laffer will drive millions of Americans into poverty from which they and their families will not recover for a generation,” Pearl told VOA.

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BepiColombo’s last close-up of Earth during flyby

MADRID, (ESA).- A sequence of images taken by one of the MCAM selfie cameras on board of the European-Japanese Mercury mission BepiColombo as the spacecraft zoomed past the planet during its first and only Earth flyby. 

Images in the sequence were taken in intervals of a few minutes from 03:03 UTC until 04:15 UTC on 10 April 2020, shortly before the closest approach. The distance to Earth diminished from around 26 700 km to 12 800 km during the time the sequence was captured.

In these images, Earth appears in the upper right corner, behind the spacecraft structure and its magnetometer boom, and moves slowly towards the upper left of the image, where the medium-gain antenna is also visible.

The manoeuvre, first of an overall nine flybys but the only one at Earth, helped steer the spacecraft towards Venus as it gradually closes in on its target orbit around Mercury. During its seven-year cruise to the smallest and innermost planet of the Solar System, BepiColombo will twice use the gravity of Venus and six times that of Mercury to break against the gravitational pull of the Sun. This constant need to break requires either a lot of fuel or a complicated trajectory with many flybys, otherwise BepiColombo would not be able to enter the correct orbit around Mercury.

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US Military, Government Workers Still Use Zoom Despite FBI Warning

WASHINGTON, (CARLA BABB-VOANEWS.COM). - U.S. military and government employees continue to use the popular videoconferencing application Zoom for official business, despite FBI warnings about privacy and security issues, an action experts fear is increasing the risk of government data breaches. 

Zoom has seen a surge in activity during the coronavirus pandemic as office workers across the country have turned to the free app to quickly arrange video calls with dozens of participants.

The federal government has been no different, despite an FBI announcement April 1 that hackers could exploit weaknesses in videoconferencing software systems like Zoom to “steal sensitive information, target individuals and businesses performing financial transactions, and engage in extortion.” 

The security concern is much greater than “Zoom bombing”  attacks reported by users whose chats have been infiltrated by hackers shouting profanities or posting lewd images.

Experts say the teleconferencing app may introduce security risks not only during government employees’ Zoom sessions, but to data that resides on government computers. 

“If there are vulnerabilities, the app can jeopardize the security of data on the computer on which it is installed, or even potentially on other computers on the same network,” Joseph Steinberg, a leading cybersecurity expert and the author of Cybersecurity for Dummies, tells VOA. “Such vulnerabilities have been discovered — and more may exist.” .

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said in an April 1 blog post that the company was freezing work on new features to focus on fixing its privacy and security problems.  

In the meantime, VOA reporting shows that Zoom remains one of the most popular videoconferencing applications for U.S. government employees from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill, not all of whom are aware of its potential risks. 

"I'm not aware of any issues with Zoom,” a senior official in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a small group of reporters a day after the FBI guidance was issued.

The U.S. defense official said he was using Zoom to videoconference amid the need to social distance, but when pressed by VOA about the potential security risks, the official added that every discussion his team had while on Zoom was “at the unclassified level."

Government employees can use Zoom for Government, a paid tier service that is hosted in a separate cloud authorized by the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program. It is unclear, however, how many government employees have differentiated between the two services thus far.

To date, Zoom remains on the approved list of mobile phone applications for U.S. Department of Defense employees, according to multiple officials.

However, one senior defense official said the Pentagon was currently looking into “guidance adjustments” for the application.

Multiple employees at the State Department have also been using Zoom for official business. One staff member said he and his colleagues have daily Zoom meetings and have not received any guidance against using the app for internal and external communication.

Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper last week tweeted about his department’s use of a “Zoom Room.”

 The State Department sent an email to employees Thursday morning saying that the free version of Zoom "is not authorized for the conduct of official business or on official Department devices used to access OpenNet." It told employees to use Cisco Webex, FAN Google Meet, Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business. 

"While the Government version of Zoom may be reviewed for Department adoption in the future, Zoom has been approved for use on Dedicated Internet Networks (DIN)," the email said.  "In light of new security concerns, the Bureau of Information Resource Management office of Information Assurance (IA) will take a fresh look at this and address any cybersecurity concerns that may exist." 

On Capitol Hill, a U.S. lawmaker’s office insisted that VOA use Zoom for an interview, despite the FBI warning. The lawmaker’s press secretary told the reporter that there would not be security issues because the meeting was password protected.

A Zoom spokeswoman told VOA Zoom takes user security “extremely seriously.” 

“A large number of global institutions ranging from the world’s largest financial services companies, to leading telecommunications providers, government agencies, universities and others have done exhaustive security reviews of our user, network and datacenter layers and confidently selected Zoom for complete deployment,” a Zoom spokesperson said Thursday.

While various parts of the U.S. government have yet to restrict Zoom use, U.S. tech giant Google has banned the popular videoconferencing software from its employees’ devices.  

Last week, Google sent an email to employees citing Zoom’s “security vulnerabilities” and warning the videoconferencing software on employee laptops would cease working. 

Germany’s Foreign Ministry has also restricted the use of Zoom, allowing it only on fixed connection computers, rather than mobile devices after concluding the app’s software had “critical” weaknesses, according to media reports Wednesday.

Concerns of Chinese cybertheft 

Scott Stewart, vice president of Stratfor's Threat Lens and a former diplomatic security service special agent, told VOA a “good portion” of Zoom’s development team is in China, and the videoconferencing company’s failure to use end-to-end encryption could allow an employee under pressure by the Chinese government to access and share private conversations. 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has repeatedly said maintaining a military advantage over China is the Pentagon’s “highest priority,” and for years top military officers have warned of China’s use of forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft and cyber-espionage to expand their military capabilities.

Steinberg told VOA he would not recommend Zoom use on military or government computers.

“Other apps are more time tested,” he said.

Nike Ching, Katherine Gypson, Michelle Quinn and Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.

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Unusual ozone hole opens over the Arctic

BARCELONA, (ESA).- Scientists using data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite have noticed a strong reduction of ozone concentrations over the Arctic. Unusual atmospheric conditions, including freezing temperatures in the stratosphere, have led ozone levels to plummet – causing a ‘mini-hole’ in the ozone layer.

The ozone layer is a natural, protective layer of gas in the stratosphere that shields life from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation – which is associated with skin cancer and cataracts, as well as other environmental issues.

The ‘ozone hole’ most commonly referenced is the hole over Antarctica, forming each year during autumn.

In the past weeks, scientists from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have noticed the unusually strong depletion of ozone over the northern polar regions. Using data from the

Tropomi instrument on the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, they were able to monitor this Arctic ozone hole form in the atmosphere.
In the past, mini ozone holes have occasionally been spotted over the North Pole, but the depletion over the Arctic this year is much larger compared to previous years.

Diego Loyola, from the German Aerospace Center, comments, “The ozone hole we observe over the Arctic this year has a maximum extension of less than 1 million sq km. This is small compared to the Antarctic hole, which can reach a size of around 20 to 25 million sq km with a normal duration of around 3 to 4 months.”

Even though both poles endure ozone losses during winter, the Arctic’s ozone depletion tends to be significantly less than Antarctica. The ozone hole is driven by extremely cold temperatures (below -80°C), sunlight, wind fields and substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Arctic temperatures do not usually plummet as low as in Antarctica. However, this year, powerful winds flowing around the North Pole trapped cold air within what is known as the ‘polar vortex’ – a circling whirlpool of stratospheric winds.

By the end of the polar winter, the first sunlight over the North Pole initiated this unusually strong ozone depletion – causing the hole to form. However, its size is still small compared to what can usually be observed in the southern hemisphere.

Diego says, “Since 14 March, the ozone columns over the Arctic have decreased to what is normally considered ‘ozone hole levels,’ which are less than 220 Dobson Units. We expect the hole to close again during mid-April 2020.”

Claus Zehner, ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager, adds, “The Tropomi total ozone measurements are extending Europe’s capability of the continuous global ozone monitoring from space since 1995. In this time, we have not witnessed an ozone hole formation of this size over the Arctic.”
Air quality monitoring for Copernicus

In the 2018 Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion, data shows that the ozone layer in parts of the stratosphere has recovered at a rate of 1-3% per decade since 2000. At these projected rates, the Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone is predicted to recover by around 2030, followed by the Southern Hemisphere around 2050, and polar regions by 2060.

The Tropomi instrument on the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite measures a number of trace gases, including aerosol and cloud properties with a global coverage on a daily basis. Given the importance of monitoring air quality and global ozone distribution, the upcoming Copernicus Sentinel-4 and Sentinel-5 missions will monitor key air quality trace gases, stratospheric ozone, and aerosols. As part of the EU’s Copernicus programme, the missions will provide information on air quality, solar radiation and climate monitoring.

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Ozone Hole