Jun 8, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World for tonight's 1,546-word (6-minute) journey.

  • Several of you noted that I included an awful lot of U.S. news last week for a "world" newsletter. We're going global again tonight, starting in South Asia.
  • Please help spread the word about this newsletter — new arrivals can sign up here.

Heads up: We've got a big episode of "Axios on HBO" for you tonight, including interviews with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Rep. Val Demings and Rep. James Clyburn. Watch at 11pm ET/PT.

1 big thing: South Asia is the next COVID-19 hotspot

Migrant workers and their families wait in Delhi for busses back to their home villages. Photo: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

India opened up restaurants, shopping malls and places of worship today even as it recorded a record-high 9,971 new coronavirus cases, the third-most new cases today behind Brazil and the U.S.

Why it matters: Lockdowns are being lifted in South Asia — home to one-quarter of the world’s population — not because countries are winning the battle against COVID-19, but because they simply can't sustain them any longer.

Flashback: Until last month, South Asia was a source of optimism because relatively few cases and deaths were being recorded despite large, dense populations.

  • Lockdowns came relatively early, with varying severity (India’s was considerably stricter than Pakistan’s, for example).
  • Outbreaks have continued to accelerate, however. Pakistan’s daily case count is now on par with the U.K.'s and six times Germany's, adjusted for population.

Limited testing means South Asia's outbreaks could actually be far more severe. India, for example, is testing at one-twentieth the rate of the U.S.

  • John Clemens, an epidemiologist at ICDDR,B (formerly the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh), estimates that Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, may have up to 750,000 cases — 12 times the official tally, per the Economist.
  • The official numbers still show India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with the third-, seventh- and tenth-most new cases in the world over the past three days, respectively.

Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor at the University of Michigan who has been modeling India's outbreak, tells Axios that while some states have hit initial peaks, she doesn't expect a national peak until late July or August.

  • The numbers can be unreliable, Mukherjee says, with some states having a perverse incentive to test fewer people to keep their numbers from spiking.
  • She also worries that India didn't use the lockdown period to build up testing and hospital capacity.
  • "It's really chaos unfolding in Mumbai and Delhi, and I think unfortunately India is going to be at the top of the list in terms of cases," she says.

Zoom in: Mumbai has launched an app to help people locate hospitals with empty beds, but such is the scarcity that they’re often full by the time patients arrive, WSJ reports. Some die without ever receiving treatment.

  • Morgues are overfull t00. There are reports of patients being treated in rooms that also contain dead bodies.
  • Public hospitals in Delhi, home to 26 million people, are also reportedly full and turning people away.

The coronavirus likely arrived in Mumbai with wealthy people returning from abroad, before spreading among poorer people and to slums where social distancing is hardly an option.

  • That pattern has been seen elsewhere in the developing world, including in cities like Rio de Janeiro.
  • There's an additional complication in India's case, though. After initially failing to account for migrant workers when implementing the lockdown, the government started to transport them to their home villages on special busses and trains.
  • The virus traveled too. 71% of cases recorded in Bihar, a state in eastern India, have been linked to returning workers, Foreign Policy reports.

The bottom line: South Asian governments attempted to balance health and hunger, knowing they could only shut down their largely informal economies for so long.

  • But with health care systems already stretched and case counts continuing to rise, they're opening up with more hope than confidence.
2. State of the outbreak: By the numbers
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

131,296 new coronavirus cases were recorded worldwide today, per WHO data.

  • Compare that to 87,729 one month ago today, or 4,589 on March 11 — the day a pandemic was declared.
  • 51.9% of new cases are being recorded in the Americas, while Europe's share of new cases is down from nearly 80% in mid-March to 13.3%.

0 new cases were reported today in Tanzania and Nicaragua, two countries that seem intent on ignoring the virus until it goes away.

  • Other countries reporting zero cases include South Sudan and Libya, fragile states that are hardly conducting testing.
  • More than a dozen Caribbean islands that are now deciding whether and how to open their borders to tourists also recorded zero cases. So did Costa Rica.
  • European members of the no-new-cases club included Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Slovakia and Slovenia.
  • The largest member of the club is Vietnam, which has a population of 96 million but hasn't had a single confirmed death from the coronavirus.

6.6% was the unemployment rate in the EU as of April (the most recent data), up just 0.2% from before the pandemic and less than half the rate in the U.S. (13.3%).

  • That's because EU governments have been paying big chunks of workers' salaries to protect their jobs during lockdowns. More than 40 million people are enrolled in such programs, per the FT.
  • The big questions is how many of the jobs that have been saved will still exist post-pandemic.

?: That's the total number of cases and deaths recorded in Brazil, according to Brazil's Health Ministry.

  • They were reportedly removed from the ministry's website on the orders of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has suggested the count is artificially high.
  • The government now says it will release data that better reflects reality. That's leading to fears of a cover-up.

Go deeper: Governments turn to protectionism in pandemic fallout.

3. How New Zealand beat COVID-19

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she "did a little dance" when she was told there were no active cases. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

There are now no known cases in New Zealand for the first time since COVID-19 arrived in the country on Feb. 28, Axios' Rebecca Falconer reports from Auckland.

  • The latest: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that all domestic restrictions would be lifted, though the border would remain closed to all but returning Kiwis.
  • By the numbers: New Zealand has confirmed 22 deaths from COVID-19 and 1,154 cases from over 294,800 tests. It has reported no new cases for 17 days.

The big picture: Shaun Hendy, who heads Te Pūnaha Matatini, a scientific body advising the government on COVID-19, said locking down early with some of the world's toughest measures was "crucial" to New Zealand's success.

  • "This arrested the virus before it was widespread amongst essential service workers and meant that our contact tracers had fewer people to trace when new cases were found," Hendy told Axios.

How they did it: On March 19, with just 28 cases and no deaths, gatherings of over 100 people were banned and borders were closed to all foreign travelers.

  • On March 23, nonessential businesses closed, events and gatherings were canceled and schools shut to all but essential workers' children.
  • That gave Kiwis 48 hours to prepare for level 4, when all schools closed, nonessential food delivery services halted, only essential local travel was permitted and New Zealanders were told to stay home at night.

What to expect: Hendy said it's "inevitable" there'll be more COVID-19 cases when the border eventually reopens or if there's a winter "flare-up." But he said effective testing, quarantine and contact tracing will help "spot any outbreak before it gets too large."

  • "The lockdown was very effective but also very hard on many people and businesses, so we should be doing everything we can to avoid another one," Hendy said.
4. Asia: Reading the tea leaves

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A social media movement started by users in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand to fight back against China's nationalist online army has turned its attention to Beijing's new national security law for Hong Kong, Axios fellow Camille Elemia reports.

Why it matters: The "Milk Tea Alliance" — which refers to a sweet drink that's popular in east and southeast Asia — highlights the solidarity between Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the growing distrust of Beijing in the region.

The big picture: This all began with a Twitter feud in April after two Thai celebrities supported the independence of Taiwan and Hong Kong from China.

  • The hashtags #MilkTeaAlliance and #MilkTeaIsThickerThanBlood first trended on Twitter in Thailand, followed by other countries, and have been used in over a million tweets.
  • The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok formally addressed the issue on April 14, accusing "some particular people" of "inflaming and sabotaging the friendship between the Chinese and Thai people."

What started as a China-Thailand meme war has collided with political events that have brought the Chinese Communist Party's critics closer together.

  • Taiwan has vowed to give assistance to Hong Kong residents fleeing the former British colony for political reasons, further angering Beijing.
  • In Thailand, which has seen its own protests against an autocratic government, a student activist group handed out milk tea-flavored cookies to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, some in the shape of the iconic "tank man" image.
  • In the Philippines, citizens quickly joined the online coalition, citing Beijing's continued militarization in the disputed South China Sea.

The bottom line: Users are realizing how much they share, beyond a love for milk tea.

5. The statues come down

A scene from Westminster on Sunday. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Statues of King Leopold II of Belgium, Robert E. Lee, Winston Churchill and English slave trader Edward Colston are among those that have been removed or vandalized during Black Lives Matter protests, which went global over the weekend.

  • Colston’s statue was rolled through the streets of Bristol, England, and pushed into a river.
  • Many Belgians are eyeing a similar fate for their country’s longest-serving monarch, who ranks among the most infamous European colonists for his brutality in Congo.
  • The spray-painting of “racist” on Churchill’s statue in London’s Parliament Square renewed a debate in the U.K. about the towering national hero. Churchill was an ardent supporter of colonization and referred to native peoples as “beastly."

The big picture: The name “George Floyd” has been chanted all over the world, but local history and events have also motivated protesters in various countries.

  • Australians protested the deaths of aboriginal people at the hands of police, while protesters in France remembered Adama Traore, a black man who died in police custody in 2016.

Driving the news: France banned police from using chokeholds today in response to Floyd’s death.

6. What I’m watching: Who killed Olof Palme?

Olof Palme. Photo: Ingrid Rossi/Sygma via Getty Images

Was it a South African angry about his opposition to apartheid? Someone covering up a corrupt arms deal with India? A notorious criminal, a PKK militant or a Swede who blended back into the crowd?

Those theories have all been floated in the 34 years since Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated.

  • We might get some answers on Wednesday, when Sweden’s chief prosecutor holds a much-anticipated press conference.
  • He predicted in February that he would be able to “present what happened with the murder and who is responsible for it.”
  • We shall see. Go deeper.
7. Stories we're watching

Gravedigging in the age of COVID, in Mexico City. Photo: Rogel Blanquet/Getty Images

  1. Trump orders thousands of troops to withdraw from Germany
  2. WHO: asymptomatic spread "very rare"
  3. Israel to move on annexation "within weeks"
  4. German foreign minister to warn Netanyahu
  5. Justice Dept. vs. Prince Andrew on Epstein
  6. In photos: Tiananmen Massacre anniversary
  7. Why the coronavirus pandemic is hitting minorities harder


"I think it's incredibly selfish, it's incredibly self-indulgent and yes, it does impose unnecessary and unacceptable risk onto the community."
— Finance Minister Mathias Cormann on Black Lives Matter protests over the weekend in Australia, which defied an official ban. He doubled down after backlash.
Dave Lawler

Follow the World channel in the Axios app: Available on iOS or Android.

Mea culpa: I'd like to apologize for referring last month to a "delightful" description of a restaurant in Berlin that had once been a Jewish girls' school. I failed to consider and acknowledge the history, and I'm sorry.