Mar 23, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Hello and welcome to the lucky 200th edition of Axios World. My sincere thanks to readers old and new — it has been a joy and a privilege to ship this off to your inboxes twice a week, and to get your reactions and insights in return.

  • A personal note: World is off on Thursday because I'm (hopefully) getting married this weekend. We've pushed the celebrations back, but we're still aiming to quarantine as husband and wife. The newsletter will be back on Monday.
  • Please help me get the word out about this newsletter, and if you haven't yet, please sign up here. Tonight's journey is 1,793 words (6.5 minutes).
1 big thing: Greatest test for the world's leaders

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the coming months, the decisions world leaders make — and their ability to communicate them effectively — could determine whether millions live or die, and whether the global economy stays afloat.

What to watch: Nations are judging their leaders on a daily basis. They may ultimately be revered or reviled based on the decisions they make now. Some may emerge with new powers that last well beyond the outbreak.

The big picture: The battle against the coronavirus has effectively been every nation for itself.

  • That’s just how President Trump likes it — few expect him to play the global leadership role that past U.S. presidents have assumed in international crises.

Even in Europe, now the focal point of the pandemic, individual countries are charting their own paths.

  • For Germany's Angela Merkel, this is the gravest test in a career full of them — prompting her first emergency national address in 14 years as chancellor.
  • For other leaders, the test comes far earlier, and it could define their tenures.

Italy's Giuseppe Conte was until recently viewed by many as an accidental prime minister who could fall within months. Now tasked with combating the world’s deadliest outbreak, he was the first EU leader to quarantine his citizens — and he's seen the public largely rally around the government and tune out the far-right.

  • U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson quickly abandoned his less draconian approach after cases rose dramatically and models suggested hundreds of thousands could die. He announced strict new rules tonight after being criticized in the media as indecisive.
  • President Emmanuel Macron declared that France was now “at war,” and he's seen an unprecedented spike in approval ratings this month (from 38% to 51%) as he ordered a nationwide lockdown.

The first lockdowns came in China, but those drastic steps followed a slow initial response in which President Xi Jinping was shielded from public scrutiny.

  • Believing it’s now past the worst, though, China is positioning itself (and Xi) as a global leader.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes to avoid a crisis on the scale of China's or Europe's.

  • Modi ordered a trial run of a national lockdown on Sunday. He's urging Indians to stay home when possible, knowing the country’s health care capacity lags far behind its population of 1.3 billion.
  • Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan initially attempted to tamp down concern about the virus. He’s now asking citizens to self-quarantine, but he says he needs to balance the threat of contagion with those of poverty and hunger, which lockdowns will only exacerbate.
  • In Africa, several leaders have closed their borders and banned mass gatherings despite having few documented cases. (Go deeper)

Russia's Vladimir Putin recently insisted the situation there was “generally under control,” while attempting to boost turnout in a constitutional referendum through which he could retain power until 2036.

Those who moved quickly, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now look prescient. Even those who initially downplayed the threat, like Trump or Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, have stepped up their rhetoric and policy responses.

  • One exception is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. He’s shaking hands, taking selfies and warning against “hysteria” — even after members of his inner circle fell ill.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is also still holding public rallies and encouraging supporters to hug. His job, he says, is to keep people’s spirits up.
2. Power in a time of crisis

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

No one could accuse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of ignoring this crisis. Instead, he's been accused of using it to cling to power and delay his corruption trial.

  • While Benny Gantz was asked to form Israel's next government following the March 2 election, Netanyahu has called on Gantz to join a unity government, under him, to fight the outbreak.
  • In his current caretaker role, Netanyahu has taken emergency measures — including allowing the government to monitor cellphones to track the spread of the virus — without parliamentary oversight.

Zoom out: Israel is not alone. China has used apps to bar people exposed to the virus from leaving their homes. Russia says it will soon roll out a system to track infected people and notify those exposed to them.

The big picture: Muscular government actions, from travel bans to quarantines, have thus far proved popular among populations looking for protection, Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlantic.

  • Even as Hungary’s government moved to give Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “dictatorial powers … for an indefinite period of time,” she notes, the opposition feared appearing unpatriotic by objecting.

What to watch: Historian Yuval Harari warns in the FT that governments won't willingly give back the powers they've gained once this crisis is over.

"Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies."

Go deeper: The pandemic's coming health surveillance state

3. How Italy's crisis became the world's most dire
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Italy recorded 602 deaths today from the coronavirus — a staggering total that could nonetheless be some cause for hope because it's the second day of decline from Saturday's high of 793.

The big picture: Today marks two weeks since Italy entered a nationwide lockdown, with officials warning at the time that we wouldn't get a sense of how effective the measures had been until right about now.

  • Italians are desperate for signs that a corner is being turned. So too are other countries that have been tracking their outbreaks based on how far they are behind Italy's.


  • Jan. 31: Italy suspends flights to China and declares a national emergency after two cases are confirmed in Rome (2 confirmed cases).
  • Feb. 20: A man in Lombardy tests positive after previously leaving the hospital without a test. He is believed to have spread the disease widely before developing severe symptoms (3 cases).
  • Feb. 23: Small towns hit by the outbreak are placed under quarantine. Carnival celebrations and some soccer matches are canceled (150 cases).
  • March 4: Schools and universities are closed (3,089 cases).
  • March 8: Several northern provinces are placed under lockdown (7,375 cases).
  • March 9: The lockdown is extended nationwide (9,172 cases).
  • March 11: All restaurants and bars are closed (12,462 cases).
  • March 22: Factories are closed and all nonessential production is halted (59,138 cases).

What they're saying:

"Italy looked at the example of China ... not as a practical warning, but as a 'science fiction movie that had nothing to do with us.' And when the virus exploded, Europe ... 'looked at us the same way we looked at China.'"
— Sandra Zampa, undersecretary of Italy's Health Ministry, to the NY Times
4. State of the outbreak

1. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson today ordered all nonessential shops, playgrounds, libraries, gyms and places of worship to close, and he banned public meetings of more than two people. He said the new regulations would be enforced by police, Axios’ Zach Basu reports.

  • This is a massive reversal from Johnson’s original strategy, laid out just 11 days ago, which eschewed such draconian steps.
  • Germany has also banned gatherings of more than two people.

2. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected an offer of assistance from the U.S., Axios’ Jacob Knutson writes.

  • Humanitarian groups have called on the U.S. to loosen sanctions on Iran because they make it harder to access medical supplies needed to fight one of the world’s most severe outbreaks.
  • Khamenei claimed the proposed U.S. aid could be a trick to “spread the virus more.”

3. The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, has asked diplomats in European and Eurasian countries other than Russia to seek to buy medical supplies wherever they can find them, even in countries that are facing their own outbreaks, Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch report.

4. International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound told USA Today the Olympic Games, slated to begin in Tokyo on July 24, will be postponed.

5. Zoom in: Where the virus spreads, and stops

Preparing the streets, in La Paz, Bolivia. Photo: Javier Mamani/Getty Images

Visitors to ski slopes in Austria and Shiite shrines in Iran have brought the coronavirus back with them to their native countries, sparking fast-growing outbreaks in Germany and Pakistan respectively.

Zoom in: “Health authorities have traced dozens of cases in Germany to Ischgl,” a ski town with just 1,500 permanent residents. “Half of all of Norway’s confirmed cases, one-third of all of those in Denmark and one-sixth of those in Sweden were contracted in the tiny resort,” per the FT.

But while small towns can spark big outbreaks, they can also provide clues for how to fight them.

  • The town of Vò, home to Italy’s first death from COVID-19, tested all 3,000 of its inhabitants, quarantining those infected even before they showed symptoms. 89 tested positive, and the disease was defeated there within two weeks, per the Guardian.
  • Wakayama, Japan, had similar success. Authorities there traced the contacts of two doctors who had the virus (470 people), tested them (10 were positive) and ended the outbreak there, per the Washington Post.

Pacific islands without current coronavirus outbreaks may seem like ideal settings in which to ride out the crisis, but they may actually have it worse than the mainland.

  • The virus will likely reach their shores. Most of these islands import nearly all of their goods, and they're not nearly as isolated as they may seem to visitors, the Economist notes.
  • Tourism could be the gravest threat of all, but it’s also the lifeblood of many island economies. That puts policymakers in a near-impossible position.

Prisoners have it worst of all. Visitors now can’t come in, and inmates obviously can’t get out.

  • In Colombia, at least 23 people were killed over the weekend in riots sparked by prisoners’ fears the virus would spread unchecked, per the NY Times.
6. A hopeful note

Industrial slowdowns in China, Italy and beyond have already caused a major drop in air pollution, per The Guardian.

The trend is likely to continue around the world, with fewer cars on the road and planes in the sky — until life begins to return to something approaching normal.

“We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen. Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.”
— Paul Monks, professor at the University of Leicester, to The Guardian
7. Stories we're watching

Preparing the fields, in Shandong Province, China. Photo Zhao Yuguo/VCG via Getty Images

  1. Exclusive: Top Chinese official disowns coronavirus conspiracy
  2. U.S.-China tensions hit a dangerous new high
  3. U.S.-Mexico border closes to nonessential travel
  4. North Korea says Trump sent letter to Kim Jong-un
  5. Oil giants announce steep cutbacks
  6. Geoengineering might work best in small doses
  7. Report: 33% of coronavirus cases in China were asymptomatic


"The cause of an outbreak of pneumonia in China that's sickened at least 59 people in the city of Wuhan remains a mystery, although Chinese officials say it is not the deadly SARS virus and doesn't appear to spread quickly between people."
— Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly in our first article about the virus, just 77 days ago. How the world has changed since then...
Dave Lawler