Apr 9, 2020

Axios World

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1 big thing: God and COVID-19

Alone at the Western Wall. Photo: Guy Prives/Getty Images

Few aspects of life bring as many people together as religion.

Why it matters: In most crises, that is a blessing. In a pandemic, it can be dangerous.

As the coronavirus spread beyond China, some of the earliest outbreaks were traced to religious services or pilgrimages.

  • South Korea’s outbreak intensified rapidly after the virus was spread at a secretive church in Daegu.
  • Israel’s virus hotspot is Bnei Brak, where some ultra-Orthodox people defied the nationwide lockdown to attend services and weddings.
  • The initial epicenter of Iran’s outbreak was the holy city Qom. Pilgrims reportedly contacted the virus there and spread it in their own countries before shrines were belatedly shut down.
  • A gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat Islamic missionary movement brought followers from 30 countries to Malaysia in late February, and it's believed to have led to thousands of infections.
  • More recently, news that the virus had spread at another Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi has fanned sectarian tensions in India, with some prominent supporters of the Hindu nationalist government blaming Muslims for India’s outbreak, per Foreign Policy.

But as much of the world has moved inside, places of worship have emptied as well.

  • Catholic services were suspended last month in Italy and in other countries since. This weekend, Pope Francis will celebrate Easter Mass in a near-empty St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • Saudi Arabia closed the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina in early March and is considering canceling the hajj, which was expected to draw some 3 million pilgrims in late July.
  • The call to prayer still sounds in Kuwait, but people are urged to pray in their homes.
  • Meanwhile, many religious organizations have played vital roles in providing for the sick and needy.

Religious institutions in many countries garner far more trust than political leaders, but this is not simply a matter of church vs. state. In some cases, it’s politicians who are urging the faithful to gather.

  • President John Magufuli has called on Tanzanians to pack churches and mosques, arguing that prayer can keep the virus at bay.
  • Some Evangelical churches in Brazil have defied local and state bans on mass gatherings, with the support of President Jair Bolsonaro. He has dismissed the threat from the virus and declared church services “essential.”
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made a similar designation after a pastor was arrested for refusing to halt services.

What to watch: Billions around the world will celebrate Passover, Easter and Ramadan this month. Many, but not all, will do so at home.

2. The view from the other side

We'll soon be crowding into cafes, like this one in Rapallo, Italy, in 1954. Photo: LIFE Picture Collection via Getty

Europeans and Americans are desperate to move beyond the worst of the crisis and return to something approximating normality, but the World Health Organization is cautioning that moving too fast will undermine the sacrifices made so far.

Where things stand: Nearly every country on Earth is still seeing their caseload increase, and a recent uptick in Singapore shows that apparent victory over the virus can be fleeting. But several countries are providing reason for optimism.

Four countries now report fewer active cases than one week ago, according to a report from Albright Stonebridge Group, though Cambodia’s testing rate is so low that there’s little reason to trust its data.

  • China’s numbers might also be too good to be true, but the trajectory is clearly positive. The cordon sanitaire around Wuhan was lifted Wednesday after 76 days, allowing people to travel freely and families to reunite.
  • South Korea now has twice as many recoveries as active cases, but it isn’t declaring victory yet. The government is extending strict social distancing rules for another two weeks, but the country will go ahead with parliamentary elections on April 15. Voters will wear masks and gloves.
  • In Jordan, thousands have been arrested for the crime of being outside during what is perhaps the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown. It seems to be working — Jordan’s case count has fallen to 202, while numbers are climbing elsewhere in the Middle East.

New Zealand saw more recoveries (35) than new cases (29) in the past 24 hours.

  • While the government's decisive action has contained the outbreak, the aim is to "crush it" before easing restrictions, Axios' Rebecca Falconer writes.

Austria is leading Europe’s tiptoe toward normal life, with small shops reopening next week and larger ones on May 1. Schools, restaurants and hotels are slated to open their doors in mid-May.

  • Denmark and Norway are also rolling out staged reopening plans, while Italy is expected to allow some factories to reopen soon.
  • “Phase two is a necessary phase in which we will have to learn to coexist with the virus, because the virus won’t disappear,” Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza has said. “We have to rethink how we will organize our social life, our manufacturing and our public health-care system. ... It will be very gradual.”
State of the outbreak
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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Italy and Spain appear now to be through the worst of what have been Europe’s deadliest outbreaks so far.

  • “We have begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We can touch it,” Alberto Mantovani, scientific director of the Humanitas hospitals in Milan and Bergamo, told WSJ. “We feel it in the hospital. The number of admissions is down and people are leaving the ICU.”

The U.K. and France are now in the eye of the storm, while Turkey has seen a sharp rise in new cases.

  • U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is out of the ICU but remains hospitalized. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is still deputizing for Johnson, but said today that he hadn't spoken to him since Saturday.
3. Europe: Merkel unites Germany, divides EU

Merkel performs a delicate dance in Brussels. Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Angela Merkel returned from self-quarantine to the chancellery this week, and her steady, trusted leadership has many Germans wishing she'd stay in office forever.

The flipside: Some of Merkel's EU colleagues consider her a roadblock to Europe's long-term health, Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund writes from Berlin for Axios Expert Voices:

Although Germany has not reached the peak of its pandemic curve, the country has been recognized for its decisive action.

  • Germany is testing 500,000 people per week, far more than other European countries, while boosting its supply of ICU beds and ventilators. Government guidance on social distancing has been widely followed.
  • The government also worked efficiently to pass a €1.1 trillion ($1.2 trillion) package to stabilize the economy.
  • Germans find comfort in Merkel’s characteristic straightforwardness, mixed now with empathy. After 15 years in office, 64% of Germans view their chancellor favorably.

The flipside: Within the EU, Merkel and her government are being cast in a different light.

  • EU members want to see more financial solidarity in the face of what could be a crippling economic downturn.
  • Germany has resisted the collectivization of debt through "coronabonds," reprising its position during the eurozone debt crisis.

Between the lines: Berlin has long feared getting stuck with the bill for EU partners' spending. Those partners contend that Germany has profited from the EU single market, with the euro boosting its exports, while not doing enough to ensure its stability in times of crisis.

The bottom line: Germany has started to take in patients from overwhelmed hospitals in France and Italy. That will earn some goodwill, though it could dry up quickly.

4. Latin America: Maduro leans on Beijing as crisis looms

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In the depths of an economic crisis, with few well-equipped hospitals, Venezuela will struggle to cope with its coronavirus outbreak without international aid.

Why it matters: While the U.S. is attempting to oust Nicolás Maduro's government, and most in the region and around the world treat Maduro as a pariah, China is extending a helping hand, Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and I write.

The power struggle in Caracas has imbued desperately needed humanitarian efforts with political significance.

  • The U.S. has offered aid but refused to work directly with Maduro’s government or to loosen sanctions that could make medical supplies harder to obtain.
  • The International Monetary Fund, meanwhile, rejected Maduro’s request for $5 billion to deal with the crisis on the basis that he lacks international recognition.

That has left Caracas leaning more heavily on Beijing than ever before.

  • China has sent supplies and is in talks about providing financial relief to Venezuela, which is behind on payments on a massive loan granted by China in 2010.
  • Chinese officials also haven't been afraid to use harsh rhetoric to keep the Maduro government in line. The Chinese Embassy in Caracas tweeted on March 18 that unnamed Venezuelan officials referring to the coronavirus as the "Chinese" or "Wuhan" virus should "put on a face mask and shut up."

What to watch: The U.S.-backed government led by Juan Guaidó fears Maduro is trying to exploit the crisis to enhance his international legitimacy.

  • "When they sent the request to the European Union, they tried to get recognition from the European Union, instead of the Juan Guaidó government," said Manuel Avendaño, director of international relations for Guaidó's government, in an interview with Axios.
  • "The money that comes to help people in Venezuela should be administered by NGOs, public health professionals, the WHO, the Inter-American development bank, and the Organization of American States," said Avendaño.

Otherwise, he says, it will disappear into the pockets of corrupt officials.

5. Middle East: Hopes for peace in Yemen

Houthi fighters. Photo: Stringer/Getty Images

A two-week unilateral ceasefire announced last night by Saudi Arabia officially came into effect today in Yemen, though the Houthi rebels say they'll keep fighting until the "siege on Yemen" ends.

Why it matters: There's little to show for five years of war in Yemen beyond one of the world's most dire humanitarian crises, which would only deepen in the event of a coronavirus outbreak — a threat the Saudis said influenced their decision to suspend military activity.

The backstory: The Houthis overthrew Yemen's Saudi-aligned president in late 2014, after which Saudi Arabia and allies including the UAE began a fierce bombing campaign.

  • The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, waged with American-made weapons, has been widely criticized internationally due to its high civilian death toll and the massive humanitarian crisis that has put millions on the brink of famine.
  • The Saudis now appear to want out, but the Iran-aligned Houthis want to proceed on their terms.
  • The UN is attempting to launch peace talks and has been engaging with both sides.

My thought bubble: If the coronavirus makes war harder to justify, that could be no small thing.

6. Not a time to kill

Watching over San Salvador. Photo: Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty

Coronavirus has also led indirectly to a decline in murders in some of the world's most violent countries, the LA Times reports.

  • El Salvador went 48 hours without a homicide last month amid a nationwide lockdown. Gangs are warning people to stay off the streets to stop the spread.
  • In Guatemala and Honduras, homicides fell by one-third in March. In Colombia, "where guerrilla leaders ordered a one-month ceasefire timed to a nationwide quarantine," they fell by half.
  • In Mexico, which is not under lockdown, murders increased in March.
7. Stories we're watching

Waiting for water, in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Gordwin Odhiambo/AFP via Getty

  1. Africa eyes debt "standstill"
  2. Trump calls for China Telecom to be barred from U.S.
  3. The pandemic and pollution
  4. Indians look to Taiwan amid China's coronavirus missteps
  5. Trump hits WHO on coronavirus: "They should've known"
  6. Bribery charges filed around Qatar 2022 World Cup
  7. One step closer to mining the moon


"Give yourself courage, have faith."
— A message from 103-year-old Ada Zanusso, who survived the coronavirus, to others who fall ill