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Brazil’s Bolsonaro faces backlash from world leaders

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The Amazon rainforest, often referred to as the lungs of the Earth, has been ravaged by a record number of fires this year, sparking global outrage over Brazil‘s environmental policies.

World leaders, environmental groups and celebrities have publicly decried the vast swaths of forest being destroyed by the fires, while satellite images of dark smoke billowing out of the Amazon has been shared on social media by space agency NASA.

An intensifying wave of international criticism comes shortly after Brazil’s research center, the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), reported that it had detected 72,843 fires in the world’s largest rainforest so far this year.

That marked an 84% rise when compared to 2018 and the highest since records began in 2013.

What have world leaders said?

French President Emmanuel Macron has described the phenomenon as an “international crisis” that needs to be top of the agenda at this weekend’s Group of Seven (G-7) summit.

“Our house is burning. Literally,” Macron said via Twitter on Thursday, highlighting that the world’s largest rainforest produces 20% of the world’s oxygen.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he “couldn’t agree more” with Macron’s call to raise the issue at the G-7 summit, saying world leaders needed to act for the Amazon.

In response, Brazil’s firebrand right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has angrily told foreign powers not to interfere with his country’s sovereignty, despite admitting his country is not equipped to fight the fires.

He also accused non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of starting some of the fires, but admitted he had no evidence to support this claim.

On Twitter, Bolsonaro singled out Macron and accused him of sensationalizing the issue for personal political gain.

The long-time climate sceptic added that the prospect of the Amazon fires being discussed at the upcoming G-7 summit, without the participation of any Amazonian countries, evoked a “misplaced colonialist mindset.”

What makes the Amazon unique?

The Amazon rainforest produces around 20% of the world’s fresh water and serves as the habitat of more than 34 million people, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

It covers roughly 5.5 million square kilometers — about half the size of Europe.

“We have so much to lose with the Amazon burning and yet not enough action is being taken to stop its destruction!” the WWF said via Twitter.

The Amazon is critical in absorbing the planet’s carbon dioxide — making it a vital bulwark against an intensifying climate crisis.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a discussion on US-Brazil relations at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC on March 18, 2019.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

The United Nations (UN) has recognized climate change as “the defining issue of our time,” with a recent report calling the crisis “the greatest challenge to sustainable development.”

“In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity. The Amazon must be protected,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said via Twitter, adding that he was “deeply concerned” about the fires.

Actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio said in an Instagram post published Thursday that “the lungs of the Earth are in flames,” calling on his 34 million followers to become more environmentally conscious.

What caused these fires?

Although fires in the Amazon basin are a regular and natural occurrence during the dry season at this time of the year, environmental activists have blamed the sharp rise on farmers setting alight clear land to pasture.

Richard Mello, head of the WWF Amazon Programme, told the BBC that the fires were “a consequence of the increase in deforestation seen in recent figures.”

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, Brazil August 21, 2019.

REUTERS | Ueslei Marcelino

Bolsonaro, who came to power in January, has repeatedly said he believes Brazil should open the Amazon up to business interests. This would allow mining, agricultural and logging companies to exploit its natural resources.

During his campaign for president, Bolsonaro said he would seek to limit fines for damaging the Amazon and weaken the influence of the environment agency.

Brazil’s president also warned he could withdraw the country from a landmark climate agreement restricting global efforts to cut carbon, saying the requirements of the Paris Agreement compromise Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon region.

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NY lawmakers, unions ask Bezos to close Amazon buildings hit by COVID-19

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Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos provides the keynote address at the Air Force Association’s Annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in Oxen Hill, MD, on September 19, 2018.

Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

A group of New York legislators, top unions and Amazon employees wrote a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos Wednesday calling on him to enact greater protections for warehouse employees who continue to work during the coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter to Bezos, the 45 New York lawmakers, advocacy group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice and several unions, including AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, called on Bezos to better protect warehouse workers. 

“You claim to have adopted a number of practices to sanitize worksites and protect workers,” the letter says. “But a compelling number of workers have come forward — and even run the incredible personal risk of walking off the job — to report that the actual situation in warehouses does not match Amazon’s public relations statements. Your workers deserve to have full protections and to be confident that they are not carrying COVID-19 home to their families.”

An Amazon spokesperson told CNBC in a statement that the group’s accusations are “unfounded.” The spokesperson added that the company has implemented a “broad suite” of new benefits changes for employees since the pandemic unfolded and put in place a number of new safety measures at its facilities to protect employees. 

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams,” the spokesperson said. “Since the early days of this situation, we have worked closely with health authorities to proactively respond, ensuring we continue to serve customers while taking care of our associates and teams.”

Amazon workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse strike in demand that the facility be shut down and cleaned after one staffer tested positive for the coronavirus on March 30, 2020 in New York.

Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

Amazon has previously said it’s gone to “great lengths” to keep facilities clean and make sure employees are following necessary safety precautions, such as washing their hands, using hand sanitizer, practicing social distancing and other measures. The company also said it’s consulting with health authorities and medical experts on how to handle building closures for deep cleaning after an employee tests positive. 

The group said it supports Amazon workers’ calls for the company to close warehouses after they report cases of the coronavirus. They also called for the “swift reinstatement” of Chris Smalls, a worker at an Amazon facility in Staten Island who was fired Monday after he organized a protest calling for greater protections. The company said it fired Smalls for not following social distancing rules after he was quarantined.

The letter also urges Bezos and Amazon to conduct independent health and safety inspections of its facilities, cancel any productivity requirements which “limit employee time for proper sanitation,” provide retroactive pay for workers who have taken unpaid time off during the coronavirus outbreak and to issue a public statement of improved safety protocols “for the safety of your workers and the public.” 

Amazon has been feeling the pressure on multiple fronts to address its safety precautions for warehouse workers. Four senators sent a letter to Bezos last month, calling for him to give workers paid sick leave and time-and-a-half hazard pay. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday urged Amazon to give Smalls his job back and said the New York City Sheriff’s Office would continue to inspect Amazon’s Staten Island facility to make sure it’s following social distancing rules. New York state Attorney General Letitia James also condemned Amazon’s firing of Smalls. 

On Wednesday, Amazon warehouse workers at a facility in Michigan walked out to demand that Amazon close the facility after it reported positive cases of the coronavirus. The workers also called on the company to put in place greater protections for workers. 

WATCH: Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers walk out over coronavirus concerns

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White House advisor Fauci says coronavirus vaccine trial is on target and will be ‘ultimate game changer’

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Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force news conference at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.

Chris Kleponis | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The first human trial testing a potential vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is “on track” with public distribution still projected in 12 to 18 months, which would be the “ultimate game changer” in the fight against the pandemic, White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday.

U.S. health officials have been fast-tracking work with biotech company Moderna to develop a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. They began their first human trials on a potential vaccine March 16. 

The trial had to test three different doses of the vaccine, Fauci said, adding that they’ve already tested the first two doses and are now administering the highest dose to human volunteers to see if there are any adverse reactions to it.

“It’ll take a few months to get the data to where we’ll feel confident to go to the phase two, and then a few months from now we’ll be in phase two and I think we’re right on target for the year to year and a half,” Fauci said at a White House press conference with President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force.

Fauci said world health leaders dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 932,000 people globally, have all agreed that COVID-19 may cycle back in future seasons, and the only protection would be the development of a vaccine. 

“The ultimate solution to a virus that might be coming back would be a vaccine,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said. “The same way a vaccine for other diseases that were scourges in the past that now we don’t even worry about.” 

Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus task force coordinator, said she’s been asking universities and private companies to develop rapid coronavirus tests to confirm whether health-care workers that have been treating coronavirus patients already have the antibodies to fight it.

She said the U.S. owes it to health-care workers — many of whom have been treating coronavirus patients for a month now — “the peace of mind that would come from knowing that you already were infected, you have the antibody, you’re safe from reinfection 99.9% of the time.” She said U.S. universities can get those tests out by Friday.

However, Fauci said that it’s not their priority right now. The main focus is to develop widespread testing for somebody who is infected so they can conduct better case finding and isolation.

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Global reported cases head toward 1 million

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This is a live blog. Please check back for updates.

All times below are in Beijing time.

7:30 am: Singapore has 1,000 reported cases

Based on the latest reported figures from the health ministry, Singapore now has 1,000 recorded instances of COVID-19 infection. The city-state had been praised for its handling of the crisis in January and February by implementing strict measures to quarantine suspected cases and contact tracing for potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

Social distancing markers are seen at a cafe outlet as authorities implement a social distancing measures to combat the coronavirus on March 28, 2020 in Singapore.

Suhaimi Abdullah | Getty Images

But, the number of cases in Singapore has grown in recent weeks as more residents returned from abroad and tested positive. As of April 1, noon local time, the country reported 74 new cases of COVID-19 infection, of which 20 were “imported,” 29 were linked to previous clusters and 25 had no apparent links discovered yet. 

Three people have died from the disease in Singapore;  245 patients have been discharged and another 291 remain clinically well but isolated as they still test positive for the virus. — Saheli Roy Choudhury

7:24 am: Global cases top 930,000 as death toll nears 47,000

As many as 932,605 cases of coronavirus infection have been recorded around the world and at least 46,809 people have died, according to the latest information compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The United States reported the most number of infections at 213,372, while Italy’s death toll remains the highest for a single country at 13,155. At least 193,177 people appeared to have recovered. 

Italy and Spain each have reported more than 100,000 infection cases as the coronavirus pandemic shows few signs of abating. — Saheli Roy Choudhury

All times below are in Eastern time.

7:05 pm: Updated map of US cases, which now total 213,372

7:02 pm: Trump says that the government ordered hospital gowns from Walmart

President Donald Trump said that he spoke to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and put in a “big big order” for gowns.

“Let it be shipped directly to the side of the hospital because we save a lot of time when we do that,” Trump said.

Doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers around the country have called for more “PPE” or personal protective equipment like gowns and facemasks to protect them from the coronavirus while working at hospitals. — Kif Leswing

6:34 pm: Trump says he doesn’t know if China underreported coronavirus numbers: ‘I’m not an accountant from China’

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