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Italy's Vaccine Program Under Fire As Deaths Continue; U.S. Vaccinations Dip, Experts Fear Vaccine Hesitancy; India Hospitals Facing Severe Oxygen Shortage; Sheriff Promises Public Will See Fatal Shooting Video Of Andrew Brown Jr.; U.S. Justice Department To Probe Minneapolis Police Practices; Armenians Cheer U.S. Designation Of 1915 Massacres A Genocide; Anti-Lockdown Protests In London; Australia Bearing Brunt Of Coercion From China; Oscars Team Hoping To Beat Pandemic-Era Slump. Aired 5-6a ET

Aired April 25, 2021 - 05:00   ET




KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): U.S. COVID-19 case numbers may be down. But slowing vaccination rates have officials worried about vaccine hesitancy. We'll take a closer look.

Plus India's prime minister says the country is shaken, as a devastating wave of new COVID-19 cases pushes the health care system to the brink.

And after a series of high-profile police shootings, there are loud calls for reform.

But how should law enforcement be policed?

Welcome to all of you watching here in the United States, Canada and around the world. I am Kim Brunhuber, this is CNN NEWSROOM.


BRUNHUBER: We begin with signs that the coronavirus vaccine supply in the U.S. may soon outstrip demand. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 93 million people have been fully vaccinated.

But over the past few weeks, average daily vaccination rates have started to fall. CNN's Polo Sandoval takes a look at what might be behind the drop.


POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine is cleared to go into arms again, a slight but ongoing drop in overall shots being administered a day, that average number, according to the CDC, dipped below 3 million this week.

The Biden administration attributing it to vaccine hesitancy. It is a trend that the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has been closely watching even before J&J's pause.

DR. CHRIS MURRAY, DIRECTOR OF THE INSTITUTE FOR HEALTH METRICS AND EVALUATION, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON: Facebook runs a survey every day and we look at that data on a daily basis and that has shown that vaccine confidence in the U.S. has been slowly, but steadily going down since February.

You know, not by huge amounts like a percentage point a week, but that starts to add up.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Some of that hesitancy being felt more among Republicans. A Monmouth poll recently showed 43 percent of GOP voters said they will likely never get a COVID vaccine compared to five percent of Democrats.

The head of the CDC said Friday that the government must perform quote, "extraordinary outreach" when it comes to educating clinicians and patients.

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: All right, I am getting the injection now.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Baltimore's former Health Commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen received a J&J dose before the pause. If given the option, she encourages certain women avoid it given the fresh findings about extremely rare blood clots.

WEN: Since there are two other vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna that do not carry this very small risk, I don't think I would have chosen to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine myself knowing that risk.

And I wish that the CDC and the FDA had gone further in their discussions yesterday to explicitly put a warning for women under the age of 50 to say, if it is available to you, consider choosing one of the other vaccines that do not carry this particular risk.

SANDOVAL (voice-over): The consensus remains the same among health experts, all COVID vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. remains safe and effective.

DR. ABDUL EL-SAYED, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: If you look at the tradeoff here, this is still far better -- it is far better to choose to take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine than to go unvaccinated given what we know about the risks of COVID.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One thousand shots.


SANDOVAL (voice-over): A local Canadian pharmacy in Toronto celebrated administering its 1,000th vaccination this week, as here in the U.S., efforts at a much larger scale continue amid vaccine hesitancy.

SANDOVAL: Well, here in New York state, about 31 percent of the population already considered fully vaccinated in an effort to try to keep increasing that number, multiple locations and vaccination sites continue to open up, including here in New York City, where the American Natural History Museum is now serving as a mass vaccination site, even offering free admission to the museum as an added incentive -- Polo Sandoval, CNN, New York.


BRUNHUBER: India has set another global record for daily coronavirus cases for the fourth day running. More than 349,000 new infections were reported by officials Sunday.

India's also posted another record daily death toll. Hospitals are overwhelmed by COVID patients and there are widespread shortages of critical medical supplies, including oxygen.

Experts say the country's case surge could correlate with the rise in variants and that includes the so-called double mutant variant first identified in India. Anna Coren is tracking all this for us and joins us live from Hong Kong.

Anna, the U.S. government says it will deploy support to India to help with this crisis.


BRUNHUBER: But will it get there in time?

ANNA COREN, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it -- it -- it's insurmountable, the task ahead that is facing the Indian government. Of course, they would desperately want any international help. But they need it, now, desperately, now.

You talk about that -- that variant. That equates to about half the cases in the capital, Delhi. Now this was first detected late last year. This has, also, been found in Switzerland and the U.K. And this is spreading.

So the concern, obviously, is that -- that -- that, you know, the vaccine, that -- that is out there that is being administered, you know, around the world, will it be resistant to this mutation, to the -- the variants that are coming out of India?

We talk about the acute shortage of -- of oxygen. And -- and, Kim, you know, we've been speaking to people who -- who are running hospitals in New Delhi. And -- and they are turning away patients because they simply do not have enough oxygen for the people they're already treating.

They're -- they're basically saying, if you have COVID, you come to our hospital, you must bring your own oxygen cylinder and your own oxygen. You know, it -- it's -- it's one of those situations, Kim, where, every single hour that there is -- there is more grim news.

There is now a lockdown in Delhi that's been extended for another week. And -- and the hope is that this may be able to -- to, somehow, you know, bring down numbers. But -- but as I say, the -- there is a catastrophe facing India right now. This is a national emergency. And it is going to require so much work to try and flatten the curve.

BRUNHUBER: I'm not sure what's harder to believe, the fact that some patients are being told bring their own oxygen or the fact that it's taken this long for India's prime minister to finally make a public statement on this crisis.

What did he have to say?

COREN: Yes, it's staggering, isn't it?

The prime minister, Narendra Modi, he gave his monthly radio address a few hours ago and he, finally, addressed this second wave. Let's read one of the quotes that he made.

He said, "COVID-19 is testing our patience and capacity to bear pain. Many of our loved ones have left us in an untimely way. After successfully tackling the first wave, the nation's morale was high, it was confident. But this storm, the second wave, has shaken the nation."

He talks about confidence, Kim and -- and people would say that it was arrogance, arrogance and complacency that the government thought it had beaten the first wave, that it had beaten COVID-19 so it allowed life to -- to resume as normal.

Although social distancing measures were eased, people were allowed to gather, gather for religious festivals. Political rallies were held. And even the prime minister, himself, he attended a political rally in west Bengal earlier this week, in which thousands of people were there to see him, packed in, not wearing masks.

He has been sending mixed messages all along. And certainly, you know, his critics would say the warning signs were there, much earlier in the year, before cases shot up. But there was no preparation. No stockpiling.

You know, it -- it's no secret that India's hospitals have been struggling and -- and -- and, you know, certainly, buckle under the pressure, everyday pressure, let alone a pandemic like this.

And -- and we are seeing record numbers coming out of India, you know, that almost 350,000 daily infections the health ministry has reported. Experts say that number could, in actual fact, be five times higher because the testing in the cities is very difficult and virtually nonexistent in the rural areas -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: Yes. Very true. Anna Coren, in Hong Kong, thanks so much for that.

A fire at a Baghdad hospital that treats COVID-19 patients has left at least 58 people dead and dozens more injured. Officials say oxygen tanks exploded, causing the massive blaze.


BRUNHUBER (voice-over): These are some of the moments when the fire started. Firefighters scrambled to get it under control, as health care workers fervently tried to evacuate patients from the burning building.

Officials say at least 200 people were saved. Iraq's prime minister's ordered an immediate investigation. He says allowing the fire to happen is a crime and those responsible should be held accountable.


BRUNHUBER: COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 119,000 people in Italy.


BRUNHUBER: That's the highest number of deaths in the European Union. Hundreds of people continue to die from the virus each day, even though the government started vaccinating people back in December. Critics say there are serious issues with the country's vaccine program. Delia Gallagher explains.


DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Months into Italy's vaccination program, authorities realized something had gone terribly wrong. Despite government recommendations to vaccinate front line health care workers, the elderly in the most vulnerable, some regions in Italy were allowing other people to get their shots first.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The regions proved sensitive to the lobbies, as we must say, the vaccinated, the magistrates, the lawyers.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Prime minister Mario Draghi admitted the problem earlier this month and reprimanded the queue jumpers, asking Italians with what conscience could they skip in front of older, more vulnerable people at risk of death.

A researcher for an Italian think tank estimates 6,200 more lives could have been saved from mid-January to now if those shots had gone to the elderly. Another complicating factor is that the AstraZeneca vaccine was initially only recommended for people under 55.

It was the perfect storm that left some of Italy's over 60 population stranded, a group that accounts for 95 percent of the deaths, according to Italy's health minister.

Like 63-year-old teacher Roberto Nania (ph), who died of COVID on April 3rd in Tuscany.

OLGA NANIA, ROBERTO'S WIDOW: Then when they started the vaccination for the people of his age, it was over.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): His wife blames Italy's delayed and disorderly vaccination rollout for her husband's death.

NANIA: They killed him, everybody of them, they killed him. GALLAGHER (voice-over): By the first week of March, the region of

Tuscany had only vaccinated about 8 percent of people over 80, prompting a letter of protest from its residents.

NANIA: The organization of all of this, the decision of the government to open the schools without vaccinating. Then the way how they started to vaccinate, for me, they had to start with the elder people, not with the younger ones.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): In March, Prime Minister Draghi brought in a military general to head his COVID 19 commission and clean up the mess. The general issued an ordinance to regions that they must toe the line.

Tuscany has since increased vaccinations for the elderly but the governor of the region of Campania in southern Italy has said he's not going to obey the general orders to vaccinate by age.

NANIA: Do something.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): In the meantime, Olga wants justice for mistakes that she thinks could have been avoided.

NANIA: He was brought here.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): For 2 weeks Roberto's (ph) body has lain here in a cement block awaiting cremation, another agonizing delay for an already grieving heart -- Delia Gallagher, CNN, Pistoia, Italy.


BRUNHUBER: Protests continue in North Carolina over the shooting death of a Black man. The sheriff promises truth and transparency. We'll explain why he says he can't release the body cam footage, even though he wants to.

Plus the Justice Department opens an investigation into police practices in Minneapolis. We will look at policing in America -- next. Stay with us.





BRUNHUBER: Protesters took to the streets for a fourth straight day in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. They're demanding answers after police shot and killed a Black man, Andrew Brown Jr., on Wednesday.


This was the scene in Elizabeth City. Police were serving an arrest warrant at the time. Witnesses say police shot into his car but no shots came from his car. Radio traffic from emergency responders referred to a gunshot wound in the back. Brown's family want the police to release the body cam footage.

On Saturday, the sheriff released a video on social media, saying that's what he wants, too.



SHERIFF TOMMY WOOTEN, PASQUOTANK COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA: Because we want transparency, we want the body camera footage made public. Some people have falsely claimed that my office has the power to do so.

That is not true. Only a judge can release the video. That's why I've asked the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation to confirm for me that the releasing of the video will not undermine their investigation.

Once I get that confirmation, our county will file a motion in court hopefully Monday to have the footage released.


BRUNHUBER: Seven deputies were placed on administrative leave following the shooting and three others left the department entirely.

In Minnesota, many are welcoming the conviction of Derek Chauvin and a federal investigation into Minneapolis police. But there are those who say they don't go far enough and that African Americans are still too often the target of police violence. CNN's Sara Sidner reports from Minneapolis.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Find the defendant guilty.

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A day after jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, the Department of Justice announces it has set its sights on the Minneapolis Police Department.

MERRICK GARLAND, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Today, I am announcing that the Justice Department has opened a civil investigation to determine whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing.

SIDNER (voice-over): No detail is too small. Officials familiar with the investigation tell CNN one of the items it may look into is a discrepancy between the initial MPD press release, saying Floyd had a medical emergency, and what really happened.

The head of the Minnesota Justice Coalition, Johnathon McClellan, says they've been asking federal officials for a federal patterns and practices investigation for years.


SIDNER (voice-over): While he and several other rights groups welcome it, he says it is terribly unfortunate that it took the slow motion murder of Floyd to propel it forward.


JOHNATHON MCCLELLAN, MINNESOTA JUSTICE COALITION: This case is significant in the sense that it brought the reality of what Black and Brown people face into the living rooms of America.

This is the same thing that happened when the march happened over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when that -- the reality of what black people were facing was brought into the living rooms of America. And that spawned a litany of legislation and the same thing needs to happen with this as well.


SIDNER (voice-over): In a CNN analysis of Minneapolis Police Department data after Floyd's death, the department reported using force on far fewer people but then the use of force spiked late last year and Black people are still subject to the use of force by Minneapolis officers at a highly disproportionate rate.

The analysis found between 2008 and May 25th, 2020, when Chauvin murdered Floyd, 64.6 percent of people who police used force on were Black. Since Floyd's death, 62.6 percent were Black, in a city that's 19 percent Black, according to U.S. Census records.

That comes as no surprise to Toshira Garraway Allen. Allen is the founder of Families Supporting Families against Police Violence.

TOSHIRA GARRAWAY ALLEN, FAMILIES SUPPORTING FAMILIES AGAINST POLICE VIOLENCE: And for every high profile case that you hear about, there's hundreds, there is 100 bodies behind that high profile case.

SIDNER (voice-over): Allen and McClellan their issue with this kind of federal investigation is they wanted to cover more police departments across Minnesota, not just Minneapolis.

ALLEN: The highest, the biggest profile cases in history have come from the state of Minnesota. Philando Castile, Jamar Clark, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, the biggest ones in history have come from this state. So it is clear that it is a problem here in the state of Minnesota.

SIDNER (voice-over): Sara Sidner, CNN, Minneapolis.



BRUNHUBER: Joining me is Cheryl Dorsey, retired sergeant with the Los Angeles police, the author of "Black and Blue: The Creation of a Social Advocate." Thanks for joining us. So the DOJ is investigating the Minneapolis

Police Department. During the Obama administration, there were about 25 of these types of investigations.

Under the Trump administration, the attorney general issued a directive, discouraging federal oversight of police agencies. Now that policy being reversed.

My question is, do these types of federal probes into local police departments actually lead to improvements?

CHERYL DORSEY, RETIRED LAPD SERGEANT: Well, you know, they may behave during the time that there's a consent decree in place or when agencies understand someone is actually looking over their shoulder.

But by and large, you know, for officers who work patrol, these kinds of measures really do little to deter bad behavior. We know this is true because we see it happening over and over and over again.

My concern is, while they're revving the engine back up, that's great, I appreciate all of that. There's talk of, you know, initiating new policies or procedures and reform.

But what are we going to do about the problems that have been existing for decades, over these 18,000 police departments?

BRUNHUBER: Well, they're trying to get at that in Congress. They're talking about police reform. We've seen bipartisan efforts. But the main sticking point is the issue of holding individual officers more accountable, both criminally -- you hear people referring to 242 -- then civilly, the concept of qualified immunity.

So here we're going to play something that Stacey Plaskett, the Democratic congressional delegate for the U.S. Virgin Islands, said here on CNN.


REP. STACEY PLASKETT (D-VI): Qualified immunity has, in many instances, become the hood for bad police officers to, in fact, act as modern-day Ku Klux Klan members against Black and Brown people in this country. And it has got to stop.


BRUNHUBER: Clearly strong words there. Do you agree?

Does any meaningful police reform have to include an end to the laws protecting individual police officers from prosecution?

Is that a deal breaker for you?

DORSEY: Absolutely.

If you're not going to hold the officers accountable, what's the point? Holding an agency accountable, maybe, is being talked about, rather than having the liability shift to the responsible officer.

If you don't do anything to deter the bad behavior of one officer who may be committing this conduct, how then do you stop that bad behavior?

You have, in Derek Chauvin, an officer who was engaged in obvious misconduct, which led to 22 personnel complaints, only one of which he was ever disciplined for. And so clearly, over his 19-year career, he learned nothing.


DORSEY: Collecting personnel complaints as if they were gifts from a good friend.

BRUNHUBER: Then the answer for some people, at least, seems to be more training, more training, de-escalation and so on. I've seen some of the training the LAPD, your former department, does on that. I've been out on patrols, where they've used some of these interventions.

But then on the other side, some people argue, the answer isn't more training. At the end of the day, generally, police know what to do. It's that, as we saw in the Chauvin case, they go against their training, maybe because they feel that they'll get the cover to do so.

Where do you stand on this concept of, we need more retraining?

DORSEY: Absolutely, training is not the issue. We know that officers, by and large, are well trained. And I understand that it varies from department to department, based on resources and funds that are allocated.

But officers absolutely know what to do. They would act -- have us believe that accountability is a four-letter word, something that they just don't want to say.

And so I'm back to, if you don't do anything to deter the bad behavior, how then do we change the problem?

We know that one of the things that was different, in my opinion, in the case of the Derek Chauvin murder trial, is that we had command staff officers testifying truthfully as to the type of training that their officers received.

There's a lot of talk about the blue wall shattering. That was not the blue wall. Those are not patrol officers that were testifying. Those are not folks who are in uniform, in a black and white day to day, who have to worry about retaliation and not getting the adequate backup that you need, should your officer friends be bothered by you speaking truthfully.

These are people who are up in the ivory tower, who haven't seen a police car or a foot pursuit or an assault at the end of a car chase in years. And so maybe the key is, we need to bring more police chiefs in and

ask them, under oath, is this how you train your officers?

Is this what you expect from your patrol officers?

BRUNHUBER: We'll leave it there. Thank you so much for speaking to us, retired police sergeant Cheryl Dorsey. Really appreciate it.

DORSEY: Thank you.


BRUNHUBER: The horrific massacre of Armenians 100 years ago is finally called genocide by an American president. That was welcome news in Armenia. But the Turkish government wasn't happy about it. We will have a live report from Istanbul.

And three strikes and you're out. Two shots and you're in. How some Major League Baseball teams are putting vaccinated fans in a league of their own. Stay with us.





BRUNHUBER: And welcome back to all of you watching us here in the United States, Canada and around the world.

After waiting more than a century, the people of Armenia finally heard the word, genocide, from a U.S. president.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking foreign language).

BRUNHUBER (voice-over): It's a reference to the mass slaughter of Armenians during World War I, when present-day Turkey was the Ottoman Empire. Saturday's statement from the White House fulfilled a campaign promise by Joe Biden.

It also signaled a renewed emphasis by the U.S. on human rights.

Biden's statement reads in part, "Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring. Let's renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world."


BRUNHUBER: The Turkish government immediately rejected President Biden's statement. And summoned the U.S. ambassador to make a formal complaint. Our Arwa Damon is covering the Turkish reaction from Istanbul.

Arwa, so how could this affect Turkish relations with the U.S.?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's already a very fractured relationship, Kim, over a number of other issues. This is, very much, not going to help the relationship, that's for sure.

The Turkish foreign minister was very harsh in his rhetoric, aimed directly at the United States, saying that it was a vulgar distortion of history, also, going on to say, quote, "We are not going to take lessons about our history from anyone."

President Erdogan also made comments prior to President Biden's statements. And in them, Erdogan repeated the same message that he has for years. He acknowledged the killings. He offered his condolences to Ottoman Armenians.

But he also went on to say, "The politicization of debates, which historians ought to engage in, by third parties and their use as a tool of meddling has not served anyone's interests."

It's worth noting, though, that both leaders spoke the day before this declaration was made by President Biden and in both readouts, from the White House and from the Turkish presidency, there was no mention made of President Biden letting President Erdogan know that he would be acknowledging these mass killings as a genocide.

That we found out from a source, someone who is very close to these conversations and who knew the content of them, who also described the general sense of this conversation as being quite tense.

Biden and Erdogan have known each other for quite some time now. And their relationship is not exactly off on the best foot, to say the least because, prior to all of this, President Biden, in 2020, had called President Erdogan an autocrat.

And then, of course, their history goes all the way back to the Obama era. At the core of this, you have, once again, the politicization of the pain of a population, that being that of the Armenians.

On the other hand, you also have big geostrategic relationships that are at play here. We have two NATO allies, once again, on opposite sides of a very key and central issue.

BRUNHUBER: All right. Thank you so much, Arwa Damon in Istanbul.


BRUNHUBER: Several thousand people marched through central London, Saturday, calling the coronavirus a hoax and a myth. As you can imagine, most weren't wearing masks. And they were openly defying the ban on mass gatherings.

London police say eight officers were injured trying to disperse the crowd. At least five people were arrested on offenses, including assault on a police officer.

Well, for baseball fans, dreaming of a return to stadiums and hearing that first crack of the bat, here is an incentive. Two shots and you are in. The L.A. Dodgers are giving you your own fan section if -- and there is a catch here -- if you are fully vaccinated. CNN's Paul Vercammen has details.


PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A sign of the times in the COVID-19 era in California, where the positivity rate is just over 1 percent, look across the way at Dodger Stadium.

This is a section that will only allow in fans who have been fully vaccinated. They must prove this. If the fans are between 2 years old and 15, they have to show that they recently passed a COVID-19 test.

If they were negative, they'll be able to high-five each other, they'll be next to each other, they won't be interspersing between seats. Basically, the idea is to get these fans into those sections. And they'll feel comfortable standing and sitting around each other.

You're in the vaccinated section. Show us your whatever it is that's allowed you in.

TRACEY DELOZIER, BASEBALL FAN: Blue band. And then we have to have our CDC card and our ID. I feel safer knowing that everyone around me is vaccinated, just like I am, not that we're going to be COVID-free. But we're going to definitely enjoy our time.

JEFF BARLOWE, BASEBALL FAN: In our section, social distancing is not required because of the vaccine. And so that is something that kind of makes it feel more normal than people sitting 20-30 feet apart from you.

So hopefully, with this experimental project that they're working on tonight, that this might take off and actually encourage folks to go get vaccinated.

VERCAMMEN: As you saw, those seats were on the second level. They were more than $100 a seat. And we're seeing other teams in California emulate this, the San Francisco Giants and the San Diego Padres, to name a couple.

The Dodgers exploring doing this again in the future, as they are all experimenting with this idea of a section of vaccinated fans only, no one allowed who hasn't been vaccinated or recently tested negative if they're young, for COVID-19 -- reporting from Los Angeles, I'm Paul Vercammen. Now back to you.


BRUNHUBER: Still ahead. Australia is bearing the brunt of China's retaliation after standing up to Beijing on several major issues. We will explore what caused the latest escalation in tensions -- next.





BRUNHUBER: All right. We want to update you on a story we brought you a little while ago about a deadly fire at a Baghdad hospital that treats COVID-19 patients. Officials say oxygen tanks exploded, causing the massive blaze.

Well, we have learned that the death toll from that now stands at 82. At least 200 people were saved and Iraq's prime minister has ordered an immediate investigation.

Australia is bracing for a new round of trade and political retaliation from China, as ties between the two countries grow cold. Australia's allies say it is now paying the price for standing up to Beijing on several issues, including human rights. Angus Watson reports.


ANGUS WATSON, CNN PRODUCER: If Australia wanted China to ease up, to remove blocks on its exports, huge tariffs on agricultural products, to stop pressuring Australian journalists, it would not have targeted Chinese president Xi Jinping's signature economic project.

But that's just what Australia did, this week, vetoing a belt-and-road agreement signed by Beijing and the Australian state of Victoria.

PETER DUTTON, AUSTRALIA MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: We've been very clear to China and any other country, we are not going to have our values compromised. We aren't going to surrender our sovereignty.

WATSON (voice-over): It was just a memorandum of understanding. There was no tangible plan for Victoria to participate in China's global project of ports, roads and railways. But the government in Canberra now says the 2018 deal contravenes the national interest.

MICHAEL SHOEBRIDGE, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE: Right now, Beijing is using economic leverage it has over Australia to coerce it somehow trading wheat, barley, coal, wine and even lobsters. So giving them more leverage to do more of that just doesn't make any sense.

WATSON (voice-over): Withstanding that economic pressure has not been easy. Exporters have suffered after the Australian government angered China, by calling for investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Now after ending Victoria's association with the belt and road, Australia is bracing for further backlash.

China reserves the right to take further action, the foreign ministry spokesperson said, this week. This makes an already strained relationship between China and Australia, even worse, he said. But the United States says Australia isn't going it alone.

NED PRICE, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We continue to stand with the people of Australia, as they bear the brunt of the PRC's coercive behavior.

WATSON (voice-over): But for U.S.-China talks in Alaska, last month, the Biden administration made it clear that the U.S. relationship with China could not improve until China stops its economic coercion of Australia.

SHOEBRIDGE: I think Xi can be deterred when his cost calculation changes. And the biggest thing that will change his cost calculation is to have a cohesive, multilateral response to his aggression and policy directions. That's got to be about security, technology and economics.

WATSON (voice-over): Australia is seen by many now as a cautionary tale for what might come to those who criticize China.

MALCOLM TURNBULL, FORMER AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: There is considerable affection between Australian and Chinese people. There's every basis for a friendly and close relationship. But this type of pressure confirms all of the worst fears that people have about, you know, the rising Communist power in Beijing.

WATSON (voice-over): For the moment, that friendly and close relationship between Australia and China could not feel further away -- Angus Watson, in Sydney, Australia.


BRUNHUBER: David Fincher's movie "Mank," about a famous screenwriter, has the most Oscar nominations this year.

But will it take home the most Academy Awards?

We will head to Hollywood next for a preview of today's Oscars, coming up.





BRUNHUBER: Hollywood hands out the Oscars later today. But TV ratings for award shows like this have been slipping lately. Still, the producers of the Academy Awards are hoping this year's show can be an audience smash. CNN's Stephanie Elam explains.


STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): From struggle --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am a revolutionary.

ELAM (voice-over): To desperation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I need work, I like work.

ELAM (voice-over): The times are felt in this year's Oscar nominees.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you concerned about an overreaction from the cops?

ELAM (voice-over): But so is the silence, including from viewers whose lack of interest made most award shows this year a bomb.

MATTHEW BELLONI, FORMER EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: If the ratings continue to decline, you're going to see some changes. I think some awards shows might go away.

ELAM (voice-over): The Oscars want to reverse the trend. Gone is the internet remote access feel that hindered shows like the Golden Globes.

BELLONI: It ended up being like a bad version of an office meeting and the Oscars don't want that.

ELAM (voice-over): Enter Steven Soderbergh and Stacy Sher, the team ironically behind the film "Contagion." The pandemic will be a big theme, they say, but Soderbergh wants a show unlike any others.


BELLONI: And he has said that he wants the Oscars to feel like a movie. There're going to have shots from behind shoulders of people, moving cameras.

ELAM: To pull it off, the show is moving to a smaller venue, here to L.A.'s iconic Union Station, itself a star in Hollywood films, like "Catch Me If You Can" and "The Dark Knight Rises."

ELAM (voice-over): And with vaccines out and fewer restrictions the biggest challenge may not be the pandemic but the movies themselves. Absent of any theatrical hits like year's past, this year the best films come mostly from streaming platforms.

BELLONI: It's very different than choosing to go to a movie theater, buy your popcorn, sit in the theater and watch a movie. People just become attached to those movies in a way that they don't when they are on streaming.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please, call me Mank.

ELAM (voice-over): "Mank" leads with 10 nominations. But "Nomadland" is the front-runner for best picture.

CHADWICK BOSEMAN, ACTOR: Yes. I know what I'm doing.

ELAM (voice-over): Chadwick Boseman is expected to win a posthumous award for Best Actor, but the biggest thing may just be on the Oscar themselves.

BELLONI: Will they be able to get that audience back, when there are movies in theatres or is this just accelerating a trend that already existed and those audience members are not coming back?

ELAM (voice-over): In Hollywood, I'm Stephanie Elam.



BRUNHUBER: Joining me now is the film critic for the "Los Angeles Times" and NPR's "Fresh Air," Justin Chang.

Great to have you on.

On the Oscars themselves more broadly, the types of films chosen, does it speak to a broader trend?

Or has this year been so extraordinary, it's just kind of a one-off that we can basically write off?

JUSTIN CHANG, FILM CRITIC: Thanks for having me. I wouldn't write it off at all. Some have spoken about, should there be a special asterisk next to this year's Academy Awards?

Because -- as if it doesn't really count?

Because this was a year without a lot of big studio movies, a year when most of us stayed home and watched movies at home, if we watched new movies at all.

I know many haven't and are concerned about the ratings of the Oscars tomorrow. But I would see this, if there's an asterisk next to this year, I would say this has been one of the more interesting years for the Academy Awards and that a lot of really terrific movies were recognized that might not have had a chance to be recognized in other years.

BRUNHUBER: What happens to those big tent pole movies that you were talking about, that were kind of held and held back and held back again?

Presumably they'll be released later.

But do those films still get made going into the future, considering the different ways that we're consuming movies and so on?

Or has there been a sea change that might see fewer of those movies, more of the types that we're seeing now recognized in the Oscars?

CHANG: I'm actually not too concerned about those big movies. I think that there's always going to be an appetite for them. I think that studios recognize that pictures that they can sell as big events are an obvious and easy -- maybe the easiest way -- to get people to buy tickets and go to movie theaters. I'm more worried about things that aren't superhero movies, worried

about movies, quote-unquote, "for grownups." The awards season does provide an apparatus and an appetite for these kinds of movies, so it's not like they're going away forever. But it's the kind of -- the in-the-middle pictures that I think I'm a little more worried about.

BRUNHUBER: We've seen, you know, movies released free onto streaming platforms, we've seen video on demand, home release. Everyone's asking that question.

When we finally -- enough people have been vaccinated, will audiences go back to the old ways, movie theaters, popcorn?

Or have we changed so much because of the pandemic in some irrevocable way?

Will that have an effect on the industry and also on movie theaters?

We've seen so many of them chose during the pandemic.

Will they stay shuttered?

Or, you know, will you see a sort of a resurgence when we go back to the way things were?

CHANG: Well, Kim, right now I think a lot of us in Los Angeles are still reeling from the devastating news that the ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theaters, one of the biggest chains, has closed. Unless something changes, those theaters are not coming back.

That's a crushing blow for a film exhibition in one of the movie-going capitals of the world. I think it's very touch and go as the industry is trying to figure out a lot of things.

Speaking for myself, although I don't think I'm alone, I think there's an extraordinary hunger to go back to theaters, as there's a hunger to go back to live events and to go back to museums. I think a lot of us are going to want to go back to theaters with a vengeance when it's safe.

BRUNHUBER: Lastly, quickly, I wanted to ask about L.A., the city.


BRUNHUBER: I used to live there. It's hard to convey exactly how all- encompassing the entertainment industry is there. Seems like every coffee shop is pitching running lines, discussing projects.

How has COVID changed all of that, the ebb and flow of the town itself?

Is there a sense that things are getting back to normal?

Or has this kind of changed the way people will work going forward in L.A.? CHANG: I certainly hope it does. I live in Pasadena. I've been a little -- I feel distant from L.A. proper myself a little bit because just having -- working from home, you know, all the time. And so -- but absolutely.

I miss, you know, seeing the shoot setup, just seeing the immersion, the immersion as you describe it in the industry, that is just part and parcel of living in this great movie town.

I'm very curious to see how the Oscars are going to be tomorrow night at Union Station, you know, which is a very iconic location. I know not everyone's happy about it. But I am fascinated to see how and if they're going to pull it off.

BRUNHUBER: We are as well. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you so much, Justin Chang, really appreciate it.

CHANG: Thank you, Kim.


BRUNHUBER: And that wraps this hour of CNN NEWSROOM. I am Kim Brunhuber. For our international viewers, "LIVING GOLF" is next. But if you are in the U.S. or Canada, "NEW DAY" is just ahead.