In morgues and shipping containers, Ecuadorians search for lost dead

GUAYAQUIL/QUITO, Ecuador (Reuters) – Dolores Centeno has scoured the morgues and cemeteries of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, for two months searching for her father’s body.

Now, in a desperate last attempt to find him, she hopes to catch a glimpse of a scar on his chest that would set him apart from the dozens of other decomposing corpses in a newly-filled shipping container.

Like other families looking for their loved ones in the coastal city ravaged by the coronavirus, Centeno is praying the body of her 63-year-old father is among the more than 130 bodies that authorities say they are holding in such containers, awaiting identification.

Guayaquil in March and April faced a brutal outbreak of the virus that left bodies piling up in overwhelmed hospitals and corpses sitting for days in houses before authorities came to retrieve them, as morgues overflowed.

The government established a task force to collect cadavers and deployed the containers to store the mounting bodies.

But the chaos gave way to disorganization. Bodies were lost or misidentified, resulting in families looking for loved ones in morgues, hospitals and now, shipping containers, across the city.

Experts have so far identified 64 corpses through fingerprint recognition. They are also relying on family identification and more time-intensive genetic testing, according to Mario Corrales, the head of Ecuador’s Forensic Sciences Criminalistics Laboratory.

Centeno’s father passed away in late March, hours after being admitted to one of the city’s public hospitals with respiratory problems. There was no paper trail to identify what happened to him after he was admitted, said Centeno.

Forensic experts asked Centeno if her father had any identifying scars, Centeno said. “He had two, the largest from an open heart operation and the other from hernia surgery.”

Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo told reporters on Monday that the government was working with a team of forensic doctors and scientists to identify the bodies “and to be able to give an answer to every last family that went through this unfortunate situation.”

“Every day progress is made on this issue, little by little,” she said.

Ecuador has officially reported over 37,000 coronavirus cases and more than 3,000 deaths, but authorities acknowledge both figures are likely significant underestimates due to a lack of testing.

Jorge Wated, the head of the task force responsible for collecting the deceased, said on Twitter on May 2 there were over 8,200 more deaths than would normally be projected in the province of Guayas, where Guayaquil is located, during April alone.

Wated did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno dissolved the task force in early May as the death toll stabilized.

INVESTIGATION

The country’s attorney general has since launched an investigation into three public hospitals in Guayaquil over allegations that they did not follow protocol for identifying bodies, while the government has set up a website where people can search for deceased family members.

If a patient was registered by authorities, the location of their remains is recorded on the site. But many Ecuadorians still have no answers.

“I looked for her in a container and I did not find her; I looked for her in the cemetery, I did not find her there either, she is not on any list,” said Victor Hugo Orellana, who is looking for the body of his 72-year-old mother, whose body he said he released to the government in March to be buried.

Her remains have since gone missing. 

The Health Ministry and hospitals under investigation did not respond to request for comment.

The Ombudsman’s Office asked a local judge to award reparations to the families of the deceased and to speed up the identification process. Those already identified will be transferred to city cemeteries for burial.

“If they told me that they already found him and cremated him, how am I going to know that it is really him?” said Luis Alvarado, who has been searching for his younger brother’s body since late March.

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S&P 500 clears 3,000 barrier on hopes of recovery, vaccine

(Reuters) – ṄU.S. stocks jumped and the S&P 500 crossed 3,000 points on Tuesday as optimism about a potential coronavirus vaccine and a revival in business activity helped investors overlook simmering Sino-U.S. tensions.

The benchmark index traded above the key psychological level for the first time since March 5, but came off session highs as White House adviser Larry Kudlow said President Donald Trump was “so miffed with China on virus and other matters that the trade deal is not as important to him as it once was”.

Still, all 11 S&P sector indexes were trading higher, with cyclical financials .SPSY and industrials .SPLRCI rising more than 4%.

The S&P 500 index .SPX has risen about 37% from its March lows on central bank and government stimulus at a time when the U.S. economy is seeing its biggest job loss since the Great Depression. It is now about 11% below its February record high.

On Monday, California decided to reopen in-store retail businesses and places of worship from one of the most restrictive shutdowns in the United States.

“People have been locked up and when they see sparkles of hope like vaccines, that drives optimism probably ahead of where it should be and clearly ahead of the economy,” said Richard Steinberg, chief market strategist at Colony Group in Florida.

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Data showed U.S. consumer confidence nudged up in May, adding to hopes the worst of the impact of the shutdown in economic activity was probably in the past.

At 12:31 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI was up 593.68 points, or 2.43%, at 25,058.84, the S&P 500 .SPX was up 50.88 points, or 1.72%, at 3,006.33. The Nasdaq Composite .IXIC was up 81.78 points, or 0.88%, at 9,406.37.

U.S. biotech group Novavax Inc (NVAX.O) jumped 13.3% as it joined the race to test coronavirus vaccine candidates on humans and enrolled its first participants. Merck & Co Inc (MRK.N) added 1.9% as it announced plans to develop two separate vaccines.

With macroeconomic data pointing at a deep recession, analysts warned the financial markets could be betting on too fast a recovery.

“The impact on the economy and corporate earnings will be seen for several quarters (and) I’m not sure if it has been completely baked into the equity prices,” Robert Wyrick, chief investment officer at Post Oak Private Wealth Advisors in Houston, Texas told the Reuters Global Markets Forum.

Beaten down travel-related stocks soared, with S&P 1500 airlines index .SPCOMAIR up about 11% and cruise operators including Carnival Corp (CCL.N) more than 12.6%.

Meanwhile, the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday partially reopened its trading floors at the iconic 11 Wall Street building, which had been closed since March 23.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by a 6.47-to-1 ratio on the NYSE and by a 3.27-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.

The S&P index recorded 13 new 52-week highs and no new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 97 new highs and eight new lows.

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WHO says the Americas are new epicenter of coronavirus pandemic

BRASILIA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) considers the Americas the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, and now is not the time for countries to ease restrictions, officials said in a Tuesday briefing.

Carissa Etienne, WHO director for the Americas and head of the Pan American Health Organization, said via videoconference that outbreaks were accelerating in countries such as Brazil, where the number of deaths reported in the last week was the highest in the world for a 7-day period since the coronavirus pandemic began.

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NYSE to reopen trading floor closed by coronavirus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The New York Stock Exchange will partially reopen the trading floors at its iconic 11 Wall Street building on Tuesday for the first time since March 20 when the bourse was forced to go all-electronic due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Intercontinental Exchange Inc’s (ICE.N) NYSE floor will be different, with protective masks, strict social distancing requirements, and just around a quarter of the people, NYSE Chief Commercial Officer John Tuttle said in an interview. Still, he says the reopening is meaningful.

“The floor represents so much more than the several tens-of-thousands of square feet it occupies,” he said. “It’s a symbol of America, and it’s a symbol of capital markets; it’s a symbol of the economy and after two months of the country and essentially the world being offline, we want to lead from the front.”

The NYSE said most of its designated market makers, who oversee trading in the exchange’s 2,200 listed companies, will continue to work from home, as will most exchange employees.

The 100 or so traders, regulatory, and operational staff heading into the building, in a still-largely deserted lower Manhattan, have been asked to avoid public transportation, and everyone entering will be screened for signs of the virus.

The NYSE floor is the last physical U.S. stock trading venue, as a slew of all-electronic competitors have emerged and eaten away at the Big Board’s once dominant market share.

Since the move to electronic-only trading, there have been no major disruptions, even with record volumes and volatility, prompting rivals to say the floor, where stocks have changed hands since 1792, has no real utility.

The NYSE says recent data show there was less volatility and tighter bid-ask spreads for NYSE-listed stocks when floor brokers were present, translating into millions of dollars a day in savings for investors.

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LATAM becomes largest airline to file for bankruptcy amid coronavirus

(Reuters) – LATAM Airlines Group SA (LTM.SN) filed for U.S. bankruptcy protection on Tuesday, becoming the largest carrier to seek an emergency reorganization amid the coronavirus crisis.

Latin America’s largest airline follows rival Avianca Holdings AVT_p.CN of Colombia in seeking U.S. bankruptcy protection.

But unlike Avianca, Chile’s LATAM posted profits for four consecutive years totaling more than $700 million. It had recently approved a dividend payment.

LATAM laid off 1,800 employees out of over 40,000 in the lead-up to its bankruptcy filing.

“We have implemented a series of difficult measures to mitigate the impact of this unprecedented industry disruption, but ultimately this path represents the best option,” CEO Roberto Alvo said in a statement regarding the filing.

LATAM is an instantly recognizable brand for South Americans, dominating international air travel in the region, as well as a leading domestic flight operator in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador.

Carriers in Latin America have sought bailouts to no avail so far, unlike rivals in the United States and Europe.]

LATAM will continue to fly while it is in bankruptcy protection. Its affiliates in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay were not included in the Chapter 11 filing.

In Brazil, LATAM for weeks has been negotiating a bailout of up to 2 billion reais ($367.45 million) that has yet to materialize.

If negotiations are successful, it could provide a lifeline to LATAM’s largest subsidiary.

Chile has so far declined to help LATAM.

LATAM said it had secured funding from major shareholders, including the Cueto family which controls the airline through various companies, the Amaro family and Qatar Airways, to provide up to $900 million to support operations through its bankruptcy reorganization.

Delta Air Lines Inc (DAL.N) last year paid $1.9 billion for a 20% stake during better times for the industry.

“To the extent permitted by law, the group would welcome other shareholders interested in participating in this process to provide additional financing,” the airline said, adding it had about $1.3 billion in cash on hand.

LATAM said that as of Tuesday it had $7.6 billion in debt, including $460 million in loans tied to its Brazilian subsidiary which is not part of the bankruptcy process.

The airline was downgraded by S&P and Fitch on Friday after the company confirmed it did not pay interest and principal on three tranches of 2015 $1 billion worth of debt tied to the financing of new aircraft purchases.

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Warburg Pincus to raise stake in Asian real estate fund manager ARA

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S. private equity firm Warburg Pincus is raising its stake in Asian real estate fund manager ARA Asset Management Ltd (ARA) to 48.7% from 30.7%, as it seeks to capitalise on rising investor interest in property funds, both firms said in a statement.

“We look forward to leveraging our strong capital base to help the business become the largest real estate fund management platform in Asia Pacific and one of the largest globally,” said Jeffrey Perlman, head of Southeast Asia at Warburg Pincus.

ARA said gross assets managed by it and its associates had grown to S$88 billion ($62 billion) as of end-2019 from about S$35 billion in late 2016, when ARA’s co-founder John Lim teamed up with Warburg Pincus and others to take Singapore-listed ARA private, valuing it at S$1.8 billion.

The companies declined to comment on the current valuation.

ARA, which counts Lim, Li Ka-shing-backed CK Asset Holdings (1113.HK) and Straits Trading Company (STCM.SI) as its remaining shareholders, said China’s AVIC Trust is selling its stake as part of the latest transactions, which are expected to be completed by the month-end.

ARA manages 19 public and private real estate investment trusts and over 100 private funds. Since its delisting, it has acquired stakes in real estate platforms in Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States.

($1 = 1.4217 Singapore dollars)

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Lufthansa says Germany approves stabilization package

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Germany’s new Economic Stabilization Fund (WSF) has approved a 9 billion euro ($9.80 billion) stabilization package for Lufthansa (LHAG.DE), Germany’s flagship carrier said on Monday.

“The Executive Board also supports the package”, Lufthansa said, adding that the bailout still need consent from shareholders as well as the European Commission.

The bailout comprises an equity injection by the government, which will take a 20% stake by buying new shares at the nominal value of 2.56 euros apiece or for a total of about 300 million euros. The WSF plans to sell its shareholding by end-2023.

Separately, the WSF will make a capital contribution of 5.7 billion euros in the form of a so-called silent stake, which is unlimited in duration and can be terminated by company on a quarterly basis in whole or in part.

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A part of that silent stake can be swapped into an additional 5% equity stake if Lufthansa does not pay the coupon or Germany moves to protect Lufthansa against a takeover.

The coupon on the silent participation starts with 4% and rises to 9.5% by 2027.

The stabilization measures are supplemented by a syndicated credit facility of up to 3 billion euros with the participation of German state bank KfW and private banks with a term of three years.

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Exclusive: Ukraine's anti-graft bureau probes state tender for medical suits

KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian anti-corruption officials are investigating a tender for 71,000 hospital protective suits during the coronavirus pandemic after the government for the first time bypassed its own procurement rules in the health sector.

Ukraine, long dogged by rampant corruption, has won rare praise from international donors for its efforts to overhaul procurement processes and tackle graft in its health system. The donors’ aid, which hinges on Kiev’s success in tackling graft, is sorely needed as a deep recession looms.

Asked about the tender, Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureau (NABU) told Reuters it was working on a pretrial investigation into possible abuse of office after an unnamed lawmaker raised concerns on the issue. NABU gave no further details, saying that divulging information could harm its investigation.

The head of Medical Procurement of Ukraine (MPU), a state body set up in 2018 to combat corruption in the awarding of health sector contracts, accused the government of violating its own rules by overruling his agency’s choice for the tender and awarding the contract to a company that delivered the suits very late and at an inflated price.

“This practice is counterproductive and illegal,” Arsen Zhumadilov told Reuters in an interview.

The MPU handles procurement of medicines and medical equipment on behalf of the health ministry.

The health ministry denies any wrongdoing in the medical suits case and said it was forced to act due to Zhumadilov’s own mismanagement of the situation.

URGENT NEED

The row comes at a testing time for Ukraine, which has so far reported 21,245 cases of COVID-19, the lung disease caused by the new coronavirus, with 623 deaths. Medics accounted for about a fifth of Ukraine’s cases, highlighting the urgent need for more protective suits.

Last month MPU conducted a tender and awarded the contract to Textil-Kontakt, which had already supplied suits to hospitals. But the government voided the deal, saying Textil’s gear offered no better protection than a painter’s overalls and lacked the proper certification.

“(Doctors) need personal protective equipment. If, instead of a biological protection suit, a house painter’s overall is bought … well, I’m sorry,” Health Minister Maksym Stepanov told Reuters.

Textil and Zhumadilov said Textil’s suits fulfilled health ministry criteria. It had already made around 23,500 suits when the contract was cancelled, said Textil founder Oleksandr Sokolovsky.

The government then awarded the contract to a firm called Meddiv, which charged 489 hryvnias ($18) per suit, compared to Textil’s 245 hryvnias.

Meddiv did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

Meddiv imported the suits from China, causing weeks of delay, and as of May 19 only around 29,000 had arrived in Ukraine, according to customs documents published by an opposition lawmaker.

Meddiv’s lack of experience in handling larger contracts or overseas shipments should have excluded it from the bidding process, Zhumadilov said.

“Our anti-corruption officer said that according to our procedures this company could not have qualified for our tender,” he added.

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Stocks gain as German survey fuels optimism; dollar firm

LONDON (Reuters) – Stocks edged higher on Monday after a survey showed German business morale rebounded in May, boosting optimism around economic re-openings, although caution prompted the dollar to snap a rare losing streak.

MSCI’s gauge of world stocks gained 0.32%. The pan-European STOXX 600 index climbed 0.8%.

Lockdown measures introduced in mid-March have put the global economy on track for a recession this year. Only unprecedented stimulus by global central banks held up world markets in recent weeks.

With nervous investors wary of adding to their equity holdings over concerns on what a post-lockdown world would look like, Germany’s Ifo institute survey for May gave some relief.

Its business climate index rose to 79.5 from a downwardly revised 74.2 in April, higher than a Reuters poll had forecast, and fueling optimism about the outlook of Europe’s biggest economy after a drop in the first quarter

“Today’s Ifo index echoes more real-time signals that economic and social activity has started to pick up significantly since the first lifting of the lockdown measures in late April,” ING economists said in a note.

“In short, the low point of the slump should now be behind us and there even is the chance for a short-lived strong rebound in the coming months.”

But with financial markets in Singapore, Britain and the United States closed for public holidays on Monday, market moves were relatively small and held within well-worn ranges.

U.S. stock futures gained 1%. MSCI’s index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was 0.3% higher on thin volume.

DOLLAR GAINS

The bullishness in the stock markets contrasted with caution in currency markets, where the dollar ended a rare weekly loss to rise to a one-week high against its rivals.

The dollar, which tends to behave like a safe-haven asset during market turmoil and political uncertainty, gained after China’s move to impose a new security law on Hong Kong heightened concerns about the stability of the city and global trade prospects.

Investors were rattled on Friday when Beijing announced details of the security legislation, which critics see as a turning point for the territory.

Sino-U.S. ties have worsened since the coronavirus outbreak, with the administrations of President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping trading barbs over the pandemic, including accusations of cover-ups and lack of transparency.

“Rising tensions between the U.S. and China around Hong Kong, trade policy and who is responsible for the 2020 economic dislocation are threatening to end the post March-trough rally,” said Perpetual analyst Matthew Sherwood.

Bond markets were stable with Italy’s 10-year yield at 1.60%, just off six-week lows hit on Friday, and safe-haven German 10-year yields down 1 basis point at -0.50%.

Meanwhile, U.S. crude oil rose 32 cents, or 1%, to $33.57 a barrel. Brent crude was up 9 cents, or 0.26% higher, at 35.22. [O/R]

Spot gold was off 0.3% at $1,729.2 an ounce.

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Bolsonaro says in video he tried to change police to prevent family being 'screwed'

RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said he was unwilling to see his family get “screwed” because of his inability to change law enforcement officials, according to a video released on Friday set to deepen the political crisis surrounding the president.

In the recording of an April 22 ministerial meeting, which forms part of a criminal investigation and was released by a Supreme Court justice on Friday, Bolsonaro said it was his prerogative to change security officials, their bosses or even a minister.

“I’ve tried to change our security people in Rio de Janeiro officially, and I wasn’t able to. That’s over. I won’t wait for my family or my friends to get screwed,” Bolsonaro said.

“If you can’t change (the official), change his boss. You can’t change the boss? Change the minister. End of story. We’re not kidding around,” he added.

Writing on Facebook after the release of the video, Bolsonaro said there was “no indication of interference in the federal police.”

In a radio interview with Jovem Pan, he said he had been talking about his own personal security and not senior members of the federal police.

The public airing of the video comes at a bad time for Bolsonaro. His political woes have led to rumblings about impeachment.

Bolsonaro has been criticized for his handling of Brazil’s worsening coronavirus outbreak. Brazil now has the second highest number of infections, behind the United States.

Supreme Court Justice Celso de Mello ordered the partial release of the video. It is one component of a criminal investigation over allegations by former Justice Minister Sergio Moro that Bolsonaro leaned on him to change senior members of the federal police in Rio. Moro quit last month.

Before becoming president, Bolsonaro represented Rio state as a federal lawmaker for nearly 30 years. His son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, also got his start there, and is under investigation over allegations of corruption.

Kim Kataguiri, a member of congress and one-time Bolsonaro ally, said on Twitter the video “proves” Bolsonaro had interfered in the federal police to protect his children.

Brazilian political parties are also investigating the president’s conduct. In one of those probes, the parties have asked for the seizure of Bolsonaro’s cell phone.

The national security adviser, former General Augusto Heleno, said in a statement he was outraged by the “inconceivable” request for the president’s phone. It could “have unpredictable consequences for the stability of the country,” he said.

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