Beirut Blasts, Coronavirus, #MeToo: Your Wednesday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering the aftermath of the Beirut explosions, eyebrow-raising appointments to Britain’s House of Lords and a tough new lockdown in Australia.

With the wounded still streaming into hospitals and the search for missing people underway, the toll was expected to rise. Hospitals were so overwhelmed that they were turning wounded people away.

There were two blasts within moments of each other, the second one much larger. Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Wednesday would be a national day of mourning. Images show the extent of the devastation.

The cause: An estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, commonly used in fertilizer and bombs, had been kept in a depot at the blast site for six years, top officials said. “Those responsible will pay a price for this catastrophe,” said Mr. Diab, who hinted that neglect had led to the disaster.

First-person account: Our correspondent Vivian Yee was at home when the blast shook her building, leaving her bloodied and dazed. The Lebanese who helped her in the hours that followed “had the heartbreaking steadiness” that comes from experience with catastrophe, she wrote. “Nearly all of them were strangers, yet they treated me like a friend.”

One is a Russian-born British newspaper baron whose father was once a K.G.B. officer. Another is the prime minister’s younger brother.

Theirs are among the names on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s first list of appointments to the House of Lords. The handing out of peerages, as the lifetime appointments are called, is one of Britain’s most dependable displays of cronyism, regardless of who the prime minister is.

But critics say Mr. Johnson’s nominations could further undermine the credibility of the long-troubled institution. He created 36 new peers, the second-highest number in more than two decades, bringing the chamber to nearly 800 members. He also nominated Brexit supporters from the opposition Labor Party, which could have unpredictable results.

Why it matters: At its best, the House of Lords serves as a check on the more unruly House of Commons. In recent decades, though, it has become known mainly as a sinecure for well-connected types and wealthy donors.

Australia’s second-largest city has imposed some of the toughest restrictions in the world to beat back a new wave of coronavirus infections. Officials are promising a “shock and awe” attack on the virus that will last at least six weeks.

There are signs that people in Melbourne are getting fed up. Our Sydney bureau chief writes that “the new waves of restrictions feel to many like a bombing raid that just won’t end.” A door-to-door campaign to check in on 3,000 people who had contracted the virus found that 800 of them were not at home.

The police are facing opposition as they enforce the rules. Officers recently smashed the windows of cars and pulled people out after they refused to provide their names and addresses.

The second wave: Melbourne thought it had beat the virus in June. But the city’s hotel quarantine program broke down, with travelers passing the virus to security guards, who carried it to their neighborhoods.

Details: Under the new restrictions, stores will close, schools will return to at-home instruction and restaurants will offer only takeaway or delivery. An 8 p.m. curfew is in place. The outbreak in the state of Victoria, whose capital is Melbourne, peaked at 753 new cases on July 30 and has hovered at about 500 a day ever since.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other developments:

  • Recent studies of patients with severe Covid-19 cases found that their immune systems unleashed a misguided barrage of weapons that could wreak havoc on healthy tissues.

  • After Russia announced a vaccination program set for October, raising concerns that inoculations may begin before tests are complete, the World Health Organization urged it to follow guidelines for producing safe and effective vaccines.

  • Two preliminary studies of an experimental vaccine in the U.S. have yielded encouraging results, said Novovax, the company developing the vaccine.

Chloe Gilliland, 29, a former member of the Australian national team, said she considered suicide as a teenager after coaches said she was “a bad child” because she was too heavy. Catherine Lyons, 19, once a top junior competitor for Britain, said coaches would hit her and harass her about her weight, and even shut her inside a cupboard for crying when she was a child. Above, Lisa Mason, a 2000 British Olympian, said many gymnasts “are done with normalizing the abuse that we were told was needed to make champions.”

The gymnasts’ stories are part of a push for change empowered by the #MeToo movement. National gymnastics federations in Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium say they are trying to curb abuses.

Pakistan: Hindus in the country often face discrimination in housing, jobs and access to government programs. Now, community leaders say economic hardship is driving an uptick in conversions to Islam.

Disney: The company reported doomsday financial results on Tuesday, with padlocked theme parks, idled cruise ships and postponed film releases all contributing to $4.72 billion in quarterly losses. But with people at home, its streaming business has grown.

Snapshot: Above, an Australian Army helicopter landing on the Micronesian island of Pulap to rescue three stranded sailors on Sunday. If you’re ever in their shoes, remember that writing SOS in giant letters on the sand can actually work.

What we’re reading: This article in Harper’s Magazine on the use of they/them as gender-neutral pronouns. “This beautifully written essay, with its deep insight into the history of pronouns and their usage and its gentle humor, helped me to accept and understand the beauty of ‘they’ in its singular form,” Melissa Eddy, our Berlin correspondent, writes.

Cook: This tomato and peach salad with whipped goat cheese works as a starter, a side or a supper, piled on top of grilled bread.

Watch: The new documentary “Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine” traces the rise and fall of the irreverent, boundary-smashing music publication from the 1970s.

Do: In-person job interviews went away when the pandemic closed so many offices. If you’re a job seeker, here are tips on acing an online interview.

At Home has our full collection of ideas on what to read, cook, watch and do.

Americans have been battling surprise medical bills for coronavirus treatment for nearly as long as they’ve been fighting the virus itself, according to Sarah Kliff, our investigative reporter on health issues.

So she started a project that uses those bills, sent by readers, to examine the cost of testing and treatment. We’ll be sharing their stories as we explore how the virus outbreak is changing health care in the U.S. Here’s what she wrote about the project.

I’m a reporter who has been writing articles about those bills since mid-February. My first article focused on an American man and his 3-year-old daughter who faced more than $3,900 in bills for care received during a government-mandated quarantine.

“I assumed it was all being paid for,” the man, Frank Wucinski, said at the time. “We didn’t have a choice. When the bills showed up, it was just a pit in my stomach, like, ‘How do I pay for this?’”

Since then, my colleagues and I have written about $2,315 coronavirus tests and $401,886 bills for treatment. We’ve discovered that the price of a coronavirus test can vary by 2,700 percent within the same emergency room.

I’ve run similar projects that have inspired legislation and demystified American medical billing. Because health care providers keep their prices secret, bills play a critical role in helping us understand how Americans are grappling with medical costs during the health crisis.

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

— Isabella

Thank you
To Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the break from the news. You can reach the team at

• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about the lessons that state elections held during the pandemic offer for the U.S. presidential vote in November.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword puzzle, and a clue: __ Tzu (dog) (four letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• Taylor Lorenz, one of our tech reporters, spoke to “Entertainment Tonight” about whether TikTok could be shut down.

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