Beirut Blasts, Melbourne Lockdown, Island SOS: Your Wednesday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering mounting casualties from twin explosions in Beirut, tougher lockdown measures in Melbourne and a pushback from gymnasts against abuse.

Two huge blasts rocked the center of the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, damaging buildings in several neighborhoods and sending a giant pink cloud skyward near the city’s port. At least 30 people were killed and 2,500 were injured, Lebanon’s health minister said.

With the wounded still streaming into hospitals and the search for missing people underway, the figures were likely to go higher. The governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, could not say what had caused the explosions. Breaking into tears, he called it a national catastrophe. Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared a national day of mourning for Wednesday.

What caused it: “Highly explosive materials,” seized by the government years ago, were stored near where the explosions occurred, said Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the head of Lebanon’s general security service. He warned against speculating about a terrorist act.

Australia’s second-largest city has now 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 are fed up with the lockdown. 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 Covid-19 found that 800 of them were not at home. The police are facing opposition. On at least four occasions in the last week, they smashed the windows of cars and pulled people out after they refused to provide their names and addresses.

The second wave: Australia was seen as a shining example for beating the virus, and it was thought that Melbourne had done so as of late June. But the city’s hotel quarantine program broke down, with travelers passing the virus to security guards, who carried the contagion into their neighborhoods.

Details: The latest lockdown will close stores, return schools to at-home instruction, order restaurants to be takeaway or delivery-only, and child care centers will be available only with special permission. An 8 p.m. curfew is in place. The outbreak in Victoria state peaked at 753 new cases on July 30 and has hovered at around 500 a day ever since.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other developments:

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

  • The World Health Organization urged Russia to follow guidelines for producing safe and effective vaccines, after Moscow announced a vaccination program set for October that has raised concerns that inoculations would begin before its product was fully tested.

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

Hindus living in Pakistan often face discrimination in housing, jobs and access to government programs. Now, Hindu community leaders say there’s been an uptick in conversions to Islam, brought on by economic hardship.

Dozens of Hindu families converted in June in the Badin district of Sindh Province in southern Pakistan. Video clips of the ceremony went viral across the country, delighting hard-line Muslims and weighing on Pakistan’s dwindling Hindu minority.

Quotable: “What we are seeking is social status, nothing else,” said Muhammad Aslam Sheikh, whose name was Sawan Bheel before he converted to Islam with his family. “These conversions,” he added, “are becoming very common in poor Hindu communities.”

A few figures: At independence in 1947, Hindus composed 20.5 percent of the population of the areas that now form Pakistan. In the following decades, the percentage shrank rapidly, and by 1998, Hindus were just 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population. Most estimates say it has further dwindled in the past two decades.

At a time when the Tokyo Olympics should have been in full swing, gymnasts are talking about verbal and physical abuse by coaches.

Among the horror stories: Chloe Gilliland, 29, a former member of the Australian national team, said she considered suicide as a teenager after her 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, when she was 7 or 8, she would cry so hard that coaches would shut her inside a cupboard until she composed herself. Above, Lisa Mason, a 2000 British Olympian, has encouraged fellow gymnasts to speak out.

The stories from gymnasts are part of a broader push, empowered by the #MeToo movement and by a parallel outcry in the U.S. gymnastics world. National federations in Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and Belgium say they are trying to curb abuses.

Argentina debt deal: After months of negotiations, Argentina has reached a deal with its creditors to restructure about $65 billion in foreign debt.

Elections in Sri Lanka: The parliamentary contests being held today are expected to strengthen President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s grip on power. The opposition party has focused on providing relief for those who have experienced economic hardships because of the pandemic.

Snapshot: Above, an Australian Army helicopter landing on the Micronesian island of Pulap to rescue three stranded sailors on Sunday. If you ever find yourself stuck on an island, it turns out that writing SOS in giant letters on the sand can actually work.

What we’re reading: This essay 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.

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 ’70s.

Do: In-person job interviews went away when offices shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic. If you’re a job seeker, here are tips on how to ace the online interview.

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

Americans have been battling surprise coronavirus bills for nearly as long as they’ve been fighting the disease 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 these 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 story 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,” Frank Wucinski, the patient, 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.

— Carole

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 during the pandemic offer for the U.S. presidential vote in November.
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• Taylor Lorenz, one of our tech reporters, spoke to Entertainment Tonight about whether TikTok could be shut down.

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