TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
The number of COVID-19 cases continues to spike here in the U.S. but also elsewhere in the world. So we thought it was time for another check-in with some of our international correspondents to talk about some of the worst-hit countries in their regions. We're joined by Esme Nicholson in Berlin, Peter Kenyon in Istanbul and Phil Reeves, who is in Rio de Janeiro.
Hello to all of you.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Tonya.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: Hello.
MOSLEY: Let's start with you, Esme. We've heard a lot about a sharp increase in infections in Europe. Is it the same everywhere? Or are different countries having different experiences?
NICHOLSON: Well, the overall trend in Europe is certainly worrying. And in fact, the highest number of infections per capita is in the Czech Republic, a relatively small country and a neighbor to Germany, where I am and where the situation is not nearly as bad. Case numbers, though, are on the rise here. And in fact, seven major cities are now classed as hotspots, including the capital. And contact tracers here are really struggling to keep up. Hospital admissions are currently down - or currently very low, but medics are already warning that it may only take a couple of weeks for that to change, so politicians are really starting to twitch. We've also seen the first local lockdown - well, the first lockdown in Bavaria since Germany - the whole of Germany was in lockdown during the spring. And Chancellor Angela Merkel has actually been appealing to Germans to have more empathy and really to, she said at the weekend, please stay at home if you can, and has asked people not to take any unnecessary journeys and to refrain as much as possible from socializing.
MOSLEY: Phil Reeves, you cover South America for us. And it seems there are actually parallels between what we're seeing in certain parts of Europe, in Germany, for example. It's also playing out in Argentina because not so long ago, Argentina was hailed for instituting one of the world's longest lockdowns. Now they've just surpassed 1 million coronavirus cases. What's going on there?
REEVES: I'm afraid it's a sad story. As you say, Argentina locked down hard. It locked down early back in March. That gave the authorities time to beef up the public health system, which was completely ill-equipped for a pandemic. And at first, Argentina was seen as, you know, the poster child in the battle against COVID. Its numbers were very low, especially compared to neighboring Brazil. Now, though, according to Johns Hopkins University, Argentina has the fifth-largest number of confirmed cases worldwide, and it's logged more than 27,000 deaths.
The pandemic's epicenter has shifted. It was, for a long time, in and around the capital, Buenos Aires. It's eased off there, and Buenos Aires has now pretty much opened up. The problem is it's spreading deep into the provinces. That's where most new cases are. It's even reached the country - it's a huge country, Argentina - it's reached the southernmost tip, Ushuaia, which is a jumping-off point for trips to the Antarctic, a place that Argentines call the end of the world. So that gives you an idea of how this virus seems to be able to really ripple across the entire map.
MOSLEY: Phil, can you explain what happened here, why they had to open up in the first place after these long lockdowns?
REEVES: Well, Argentina's economy was in big trouble before the pandemic began. Now the poverty rate's rising sharply, obviously, and it's up to about 40%. Millions of people need to get out and work, especially in the informal sector. I'm told that provincial governments are either reluctant to impose or reimpose coronavirus restrictions because of that desperate economic situation, or they're finding that a lot of people just won't comply with lockdown rules anymore, so there's pandemic fatigue. That's a big problem for Argentina's president, Alberto Fernandez. COVID arrived just a couple of months after he took office. His ratings were at first sky-high, but now they're down. He's facing a lot of criticism over his handling of the pandemic. That includes street protests. In Buenos Aires, some protesters have even burned face masks. And there's fake news going around saying the virus doesn't exist, so the pandemic is also getting politicized just as it is in the U.S. And then there's the bigger picture. What we're seeing in Argentina, we're seeing across much of the region. Latin America has a quarter of the world's COVID cases and a third of the deaths. And that has a lot to do with underfunded public health systems, deep social divisions and weak governance.
MOSLEY: Esme, I want to follow up on something you mentioned earlier, which is that the Czech Republic is now faring so poorly compared to its European neighbors. Can you talk more about some of these less-reported-on corners of Europe? How are they faring?
NICHOLSON: Well, not well; the Czech government actually warned this morning that hospital beds could run out by early November - so the week after next - and the country is currently in a partial lockdown. Also, from today, Czechs are required to wear masks outdoors in urban areas and also in cars. Ireland, another small country, is going into a six-week national lockdown from today. But after the Czech Republic, it's Belgium and the Netherlands that are reporting the highest infection rates. In Belgium, testing facilities are at capacity, so tests are now only available for people with symptoms. And this new strategy is drawing major criticism, not least because it will significantly impact how case numbers are interpreted. It's a similar situation north of the border in the Netherlands, which, like Belgium, has closed bars and restaurants but is keeping schools open for as long as it can. Some there, though, are rebelling against the new measures or are fed up with the new measures. Churches are under fire for allowing too many worshippers to congregate. And at the weekend, the Dutch royal couple were forced to cut short their vacation to Greece following a public backlash. So the mood in these countries is very much one of frustration and, in some cases, desperation.
MOSLEY: Peter Kenyon, I want to bring you in here. This week, Iran's health minister appealed for more public and government support to enforce restrictions there to stem this third major outbreak that's upcoming. We remember Iran was one of the hardest-hit countries in your region early on. What's the situation now?
KENYON: Well, it's still bad - started bad and it's remained bad. Iran's reporting new cases - about 5,500 a day recently. That, of course, is quite a bit lower than the U.S. or Russia, for example, but still a considerable figure. And like a lot of places, both the caseload and the fatality numbers are on the rise. Iran lost 312 people in the past 24 hours, and their total death toll is now well over 31,000 since the outbreak began.
MOSLEY: Iran, of course, is under U.S. sanctions, which have intensified as the outbreak has continued. What's been the effect of that?
KENYON: Well, that's a good point. As it happens, I was in Tehran in late February, when this rush to get masks and other gear started to ramp up. And I just watched pharmacies getting cleaned out in minutes, people racing around, trying desperately to find supplies, worrying that they'd run out permanently. Now, when it comes to the sanctions, Iranian officials have been condemning them pretty much every day as the pandemic continued, calling the sanctions a crime against humanity among other things. The U.S., of course, says the sanctions don't target humanitarian items - not food, not medicine. But economists say the banks are reluctant to process all kinds of transactions involving Iran, and that does lead to shortages. And there's also some allegations flying around, people claiming that some shipments are being diverted, sold for profit. The Treasury Department, meanwhile, recently added more sanctions on Iranian banks, so people there are not looking for things to get better anytime soon.
MOSLEY: That's NPR international correspondents Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, Phil Reeves in Rio de Janeiro and Esme Nicholson in Berlin.
Thanks to all three of you.
KENYON: Thank you.
REEVES: You're welcome.
NICHOLSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.