The pandemic hovers over China’s once-a-year political congress.
Coronavirus cases in China have slowed to a fraction of what they were in January, but the pandemic was weighing heavily on the country’s politics and economy as top officials began a tightly choreographed legislative pageant on Friday.
In one sense, the National People’s Congress is a chance for China’s leaders, who won broad public support for curbing the spread of the outbreak, to push back against growing international criticism over its early missteps in Wuhan. President Xi Jinping has described his government’s containment efforts as a “people’s war” against the virus.
For one, Mr. Xi’s government faces a new outbreak in Jilin, a northeastern province of 27 million people that sits near China’s borders with Russia and North Korea. Jilin has been put under a Wuhan-style lockdown as it has reported an outbreak that is still small — about 130 cases and two deaths — but has the potential to become a “big explosion,” experts say.
Then there is the economy, which shrank in the first three months of the year compared with a year earlier — the first decline in the modern era. On Friday, Chinese officials declined to set an economic growth target for this year and outlined plans to ramp up government spending.
“At present, the epidemic has not yet come to an end, while the tasks we face in promoting development are immense,” Premier Li Keqiang told lawmakers as the National People’s Congress opened in Beijing on Friday. “We must redouble our efforts to minimize the losses resulting from the virus.”
The virus also presented challenges for organizers of the Congress, which is a logistical nightmare even in normal times.
Delegates have been made to take nucleic acid tests for the virus before being allowed to travel to Beijing. Masks will be required, windows will be opened to improve ventilation and plastic dividers will sit atop dinner tables.
Ecuador took early, aggressive measures to stop the coronavirus, but could not prevent its largest city, Guayaquil, from becoming the site of Latin America’s worst outbreak. A lack of tracking and testing of people who arrived in Ecuador from Europe contributed to the spread of the virus in February.
It took 13 days to diagnose an Ecuadorean woman the government labeled Patient 0, who was living in Spain and had returned home. In that time, she infected at least 17 other people, including much of her family, according to a medical investigator.
As the Ecuadorean authorities grapple with the scale of the crisis that caused hospitals and morgues to collapse, they believe the toll is likely many times larger than the official figure of 520 deaths.
Separately, President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala on Thursday voiced frustration over U.S. deportations of people infected with the coronavirus, saying it was causing “serious problems” for his nation’s health system. That country has more than 2,200 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 45 reported deaths.
If any place was prepared for quarantine, it was Milton Keynes. Two years before the pandemic, a start-up called Starship Technologies deployed a fleet of rolling delivery robots in the small city about 50 miles northwest of London.
The squat six-wheeled robots shuttled groceries and dinner orders to homes and offices. As the coronavirus spread, Starship shifted the fleet even further into grocery deliveries. Locals like Emma Maslin could buy from the corner store with no human contact.
“There’s no social interaction with a robot,” Ms. Maslin said.
The sudden usefulness of the robots to people staying in their homes is a tantalizing hint of what the machines could one day accomplish — at least under ideal conditions. Milton Keynes, with a population of 270,000 and a vast network of bicycle paths, is perfectly suited to rolling robots. Demand has been so high in recent weeks, some residents have spent days trying to schedule a delivery.
When the Starship robots first arrived in Milton Keynes, one of the fastest-growing cities in Britain, Liss Page thought they were cute but pointless. “The first time I met one, it was stuck on the curb outside my house,” she said.
Then, in early April, she opened a letter from the National Health Service advising her not to leave the house because her asthma and other conditions made her particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. In the weeks that followed, the robots provided a much-needed connection to the outside world.
Smaller deliveries suit Ms. Page because she lives alone. But like the grocery vans that deliver larger orders across the city, the Starship robots are ultimately limited by what is on the shelves.
“You pad out the order with things you don’t really need to make the delivery charge worthwhile,” Ms. Page said. “With the last delivery, all I got were the things I didn’t really need.”
President Trump, who has defiantly refused to wear a mask in public despite the recommendations of federal health officials, toured a Ford plant in Michigan on Thursday with his face uncovered. That was against the factory’s guidelines and the direct urging of the state’s attorney general.
During his visit, Mr. Trump continued to press for the further easing of social-distancing restrictions. He blamed Democrats for keeping the economy closed and suggested voters would punish them in the presidential election and view it as “a November question.”
Separately, Mr. Trump called on Thursday for flags at the White House, on public grounds across the country and on naval vessels to be flown at half-staff in honor of the victims of the coronavirus. It was a rare acknowledgment of the lives lost from an administration that typically likes to downplay the death toll and take credit for lives it claims it saved.
The federal government reported on Thursday that another 2.4 million American workers filed for jobless benefits last week, bringing the total to a staggering 38.6 million in nine weeks.
Reporting contributed by Javier C. Hernández, Keith Bradsher, Chris Buckley, Karen Zraick, Mike Ives, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, James Gorman, Cade Metz and Erin Griffith.