Apr 8, 2021

Axios World

Welcome to the 300th edition of Axios World, which falls on our three-year anniversary.

  • I'm honored and amazed that so many of you join me twice a week to find out a bit more about what's happening around the world. Thanks for being a reader.
  • Things have been pretty heavy lately, so for our birthday edition (1,720 words, 6 minutes), we're getting off the beaten track, starting in Gibraltar and ending in Greenland.

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1 big thing: The one place where almost everyone is vaccinated

No mask, no problem. Photo: Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty

A tiny British territory on the southern tip of Spain may now be the most protected place on Earth, with all but a sliver of the population vaccinated against COVID-19.

Why it matters: Gibraltar offers the rest of Europe a glimpse of what life might soon be like, if supply shortfalls and vaccine hesitancy can be overcome.

The backstory: With its 34,000 residents densely populated in the shadow of the Rock of Gibraltar, the territory imposed a strict lockdown last spring, knowing that any outbreak could sweep quickly through the population.

  • It worked for a time. Then came a brutal winter. In January alone, the death toll climbed from 7 to 78. It's now at 94, on par with the highest per capita rates in Europe.
  • "When we were at our worst place, the vaccines arrived, and that was the beginning of getting us to a good place," Health Minister Samantha Sacramento tells Axios.
  • Gibraltar has now gone two weeks without recording a case and nearly a month without a death. The coronavirus ward at St. Bernard's Hospital is empty.

How it happened: Health authorities set a goal of vaccinating 70% of the population, but worried they might not reach it due to supply limitations or skepticism in the population.

  • The campaign soon outpaced every other country or territory on Earth, with the British government sending a steady supply of Pfizer/BioNTech doses and a remarkable 98% of people over 60 electing to be vaccinated.
  • By mid-March, every local resident over 16 had been offered a shot, as had all 14,000 cross-border workers who live in Spain. 85% of those eligible have already been vaccinated, and that's ticking upward as people who had been hesitant change their minds.

The state of play: Restaurants have fully opened, a curfew has been lifted, and mask mandates have been lifted outdoors and relaxed indoors. Few restrictions remain, except on international travel.

  • Vaccinated fans were recently allowed to attend a boxing match (indoors) and a soccer game (outdoors). They were tested after 10 days to ensure no cases emerged.

"Everything feels as normal as I think we're going to get," Sacramento says. "It's a new normal. In terms of partying and all that, we cannot behave as we did in 2019, and that's not going to happen anywhere for a long time."

  • While people are still behaving fairly conservatively, she can feel the atmosphere changing as the fear of infection fades.
  • "Generally, there's a sense of community spirit about," she says, with residents pleased to see their small community at the top of global vaccination tables.

That community spirit also aided in the vaccination campaign. The first to be vaccinated was the oldest man in Gibraltar, age 100.

  • Residents were encouraged to follow along on social media and share photos of themselves once they'd been vaccinated. "That built a lot of momentum," Sacramento says. "Messaging is very important."

The bottom line: "Someone came up with the great idea of calling it Operation Freedom," she says of the vaccination campaign. "And now, three months on from when we started Operation Freedom, it does very much feel like freedom."

2. State of the outbreak: Better days ahead
Data: IMF World Economic Outlook; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

1. The world is on track for a big, uneven economic recovery in 2021, according to an improved forecast this week from the IMF.

  • The U.S. economy is expected to be 2.7% larger at the end of this year than it was at the end of 2019 — on par with the global average but far exceeding most rich countries (just look at Italy, Spain and the U.K.).
  • Led by China and India, growth in Asia this year is expected to be robust. The path to recovery is longer in Africa and, in particular, in Latin America.
  • Overall, the 6.4% global expansion this year would be the biggest since 1984.

2. AstraZeneca's vaccine took yet another hit yesterday, when the European Medicines Agency announced that blood clots should be considered a "very rare" side effect.

  • The "very rare" bit can't be emphasized enough. Just about everyone agrees that you're better off with the vaccine than without it, but the U.K. did recommend that people under 30 receive other shots.
  • What to watch: If AZ seeks U.S. authorization, the Food and Drug Administration's decision will have major ramifications for the shot's reputation and for eventual U.S. exports, Axios' Caitlin Owens reports.
  • What I'm wondering: Can the J&J single-shot vaccine supply ramp up fast enough that it rivals AstraZeneca as the world's cheap, convenient vaccine of choice? What about Novavax?

3. Speaking of... President Biden said this week that the U.S. should begin providing doses to the rest of the world by this summer.

  • That would be a major turning point for global supply, since the U.S. is producing around one-quarter of the world's doses and keeping them all for domestic use.
  • Yes, but: Vanity Fair reports that the Trump-era vaccine contracts preclude donations to spare the manufacturers additional liabilities. It's unclear how big an obstacle that might prove.
3. Europe: The Russian threat on Ukraine's border
Zelensky visits the troops in Donbas. Photo: Presidency of Ukraine handout via Getty

The simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine has threatened to reach a boil over the past few days, with Russia massing troops near the border and pro-Kremlin media raising the specter of war.

Why it matters: U.S. European Command went into high alert in light of the Russian movements, which some experts speculated could presage an active Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops have been fighting pro-Russian separatists for seven years.

The backstory: The Kremlin's hope that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would cut a peace deal on Russia's terms has faded, leaving a diplomatic deadlock.

  • Direct intervention in the Donbas region could give Putin leverage, bolster his standing ahead of parliamentary elections this year, and potentially help secure a much-needed water source for occupied Crimea.
  • But the costs of such a war likely exceed any benefits for Moscow, removing all plausible deniability from Russia's war in Ukraine and risking a strong Western response.

The other side: Zelensky tweeted today that he was heading to the Donbas because a Ukrainian soldier had been killed overnight and he wanted "to be with our soldiers in the tough times."

  • The crisis has sparked a burst of patriot fervor and a strong show of support from Washington, both of which have strengthened the embattled Ukrainian president, notes Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow.
  • President Biden and virtually his entire top team called their Ukrainian counterparts over the past week, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called Zelensky on Tuesday.
  • While Kyiv was dismayed when the French and German leaders met with Putin and not Zelensky during the crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel today "demanded" in a call with Putin that "this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation," her office said.

What to watch: Russian officials and pundits have been warning that Russia's hand might be forced if separatists in Donbas are slaughtered by Ukrainian troops. There's no clear factual basis for such fears, but they could provide a pretext for intervention.

The bottom line: The flare-up is a reminder that the war in Ukraine is far from over and could deepen dramatically, now or someday down the line.

4. Latin America: Thousands flee Venezuela's border blitz
Expand chart
Map: Axios Visuals

Venezuela has launched an unexpected assault against armed groups and dissident guerrillas that push drugs and contraband near its border with Colombia, forcing civilians to flee or risk being caught in the crossfire, my colleagues report in our new Axios Latino newsletter.

  • The sudden military strikes in Apure state are a departure from President Nicolás Maduro’s hands-off approach in the border region.

Why it matters: Millions of Venezuelans have left their country in the past years due to unprecedented levels of hunger, hyperinflation and political uncertainty.

  • The Venezuelan armed forces have long been accused by international bodies of extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests.
  • Now some in Apure state report that the Venezuelan soldiers are murdering farmers and passing them off as guerrilla fighters.
  • The other side: Venezuela Vice President Delcy Rodríguez recently claimed the actions against the armed groups came in response to supposed U.S. meddling, stating that “narcoterrorists are carrying out imperial plans.”

Read Axios Latino, and subscribe here.

5. Global news roundup: Everything old is new again

Fire at the Peace Walls, in Belfast. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

1. Leaders in Northern Ireland Thursday called for calm and an end to the unrest that has rocked the country for nearly a week.

  • Why it matters: Tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have been rising since Brexit upset the political balance between the two, Axios' Ivana Saric writes.

2. Tanzania's new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has offered a glimmer of hope that she'll reverse her late predecessor's policies of banning independent media and rejecting coronavirus vaccines.

  • Yes, but: Leading opposition figures say that until Hassan proves otherwise, they'll assume the government is just as autocratic after John Magufuli as it was under him, per the Washington Post.

3. Myanmar's ambassador to the U.K. was pushed out of the embassy after Myanmar's military attaché took over the building, Axios' Shawna Chen writes.

  • What he's saying: "There was a coup in Myanmar in February. Now there is the same situation in central London."

4. Israel could be risking escalation with Iran and tensions with the Biden administration by continuing to strike Iranian ships, Axios' Barak Ravid reports.

  • The latest: An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ship was attacked in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen on Tuesday, the same day as indirect U.S.-Iran nuclear talks opened in Vienna.
  • Go deeper: Ideological foes weigh pact to oust Netanyahu
6. Greenland: Rare-earth showdown in the Arctic

Election day in Nuuk. Photo: Christian Klindnt Soelbeck/AFP via Getty

A snap election in Greenland has dealt a potentially fatal blow to a mining project that had been expected to produce around 10% of the world's rare-earth materials.

Why it matters: Rare-earth elements are key ingredients in batteries and magnets for everything from cellphones to electric cars. China dominates the industry — a source of concern in Washington because of the economic leverage it provides Beijing.

  • A Chinese company owns a stake in the Greenland project and would also process all of the materials mined on the site in the mountains of southern Greenland, per WSJ.
  • The project would boost the economy and make independence from Denmark more viable (Danish aid currently covers about half of Greenland's budget). But it could also be environmentally disastrous.
  • The latter argument won out, as an opposition party opposed to the mine won Tuesday's vote.

Worth noting: China has made a number of plays recently for influence in Greenland (pop. 56,225) but has not, like Donald Trump, offered to buy the island outright.

7. Stories we're watching

Easter Mass in Burundi. Photo: Tchandrou Nitanga/AFP via Getty

  1. Jordan's king says family rift “nipped in the bud"
  2. Biden reverses Trump's aid cuts to Palestinians
  3. Australia to end sexual harassment exemptions for politicians
  4. Russia dials up its military space ambitions
  5. Lloyd Austin to visit Israel next week
  6. Biden's climate balancing act with China
  7. Global capitalism abets China's repression

Quoted:

“This is not just a childish prank, this is a serious incident."
— The spokesperson for Kirschgarten High School in Basel, Switzerland, where three students falsified positive COVID-19 tests in order to skip school and ended up sending their entire class and several teachers into quarantine for 10 days.