Jun 25, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. We take off from Africa tonight and land, 1,617 words (6 minutes) later, in outer space.

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1 big thing: The pandemic accelerates in Africa

A lockdown delivery, in Uganda. Photo: Sumy Sadurni/AFP via Getty

Africa is reeling from the economic ravages of the coronavirus. Now the disease itself is accelerating across the continent.

Why it matters: “The question we’ve been asking is, ‘Is it that we will not see widespread outbreaks or that we haven’t seen them yet?’” says Tom Frieden, former CDC director. The outbreaks are now growing, the WHO warns, and COVID-19 is spreading from cities into rural areas where they will be even harder to track and treat.

By the numbers: Home to 17% of the global population, Africa accounts for just 3.5% of the global case count and 1.8% of deaths.

  • But while Africa (pop. 1.3 billion) has roughly as many confirmed cases as the U.K. (pop. 67 million), limited testing means the numbers tell only part of the story.
  • An American is 150x as likely to have been tested as a Nigerian. While South Africa is conducting several times as many tests as any other African country, its testing rate is still only one-fourth that of the U.S.

That’s not to say we have no idea what’s happening on the continent. Frieden says enough strategic testing is being done to ensure massive outbreaks aren’t going undetected.

  • But based on the data we do have, he says, “it is likely that Africa is on the brink of a large outbreak.”
  • Frieden points to high test positivity rates in countries like Sudan as a sign many cases are going undetected. However, he expects mortality rates to remain relatively low given Africa’s young population.

The big picture: Many people who are never infected by COVID-19 will nonetheless die as a result of the pandemic.

  • Issa Makumbi of Uganda’s Health Ministry noted on a media call last week that more people died of untreated malaria than from Ebola during the 2014 outbreak in West Africa.
  • Not only are health care visits for non-COVID conditions down, he says, Uganda has had to delay vaccinations for yellow fever.
  • “If health care doesn’t continue to provide the essential gains that have been provided over the last decade, you could see as many as 10 times as many deaths from malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious disease causes as from COVID even in a large COVID outbreak," Frieden warns.

The outlook darkens further when you add in the frightening increases in food insecurity, says Gayle Smith, CEO of the ONE Campaign and a former USAID administrator. “The virus is the one thing we’re all tracking, but it’s these aftershocks."

Where things stand: Commodity prices (notably oil) were crushed as the world went into lockdown. Remittance flows dried up and tourism ceased — all before lockdowns froze African economies.

  • Governments now need to do more, in terms of stimulus and health spending, with lower revenues. Their room to maneuver is severely limited by existing debts.
  • Cash and debt relief are the most valuable contributions the international community can make right now, Smith says.
2. Bracing for impact

Fumigation duty, in Nairobi. Photo: Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images

Help has been slow to arrive. “I'm sure it's in part because every country is dealing with it at home, but I've never seen a crisis like this to which there's been so little international response,” says Smith.

  • “I mean, you look at Ebola, the Haiti earthquake, I worked on all the chronic humanitarian crises for years. And this is just not triggering the kind of response that these things usually do.”
  • “We just watched this move around the entire planet. I fear that we’ve got this perception that if we can just manage it here, then we’re fine. And that’s not true for any country anywhere.”

The flipside: Africa stands out in terms of international cooperation during the pandemic — from health bodies like the African CDC to coordination between finance ministers to the creation of a new Africa Medical Supply Platform to distribute supplies around the continent.

  • Lessons from AIDS and Ebola were put to good use. South Africa established testing centers in townships to catch outbreaks early.
  • Contact tracing — often conducted door-to-door — ramped up more quickly in some African cities than American ones.
  • Africa has experience to draw on, favorable demographics and it's had time to prepare.

The bottom line: As the pandemic shifts from the rich world to the developing one, countries will hope the advantages they do have will outweigh the resources they don't.

Go deeper: Coronavirus is the worst-case scenario for developing countries

3. Africa: A damming dispute

The mighty dam. Photo: Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Ethiopia is planning to begin to fill the 72 billion liter reservoir of the massive Grand Renaissance Dam within weeks. Egypt vows that if Ethiopia follows through, it will come to regret it.

The big picture: The dam dispute has rumbled on since Ethiopia announced the staggeringly ambitious project, which will double its electrical output but disrupt the flow of the Nile to Egypt and Sudan, nine years ago.

  • One crucial issue is the rate at which Ethiopia will fill the reservoir. Egypt says that process must happen over 12 years. Ethiopia wants to do it in half that time.
  • The latest round of talks broke down last week. Ethiopia's rainy season begins in July, and it plans to begin to fill the reservoir then even without a deal.
  • Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire confidante of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, tweeted last week: “We will never allow any country to starve us, if Ethiopia doesn’t come to reason, we the Egyptian people will be the first to call for war."

Why it matters: "For Egypt, the Nile is synonymous with life itself. ... For millennia, it has enjoyed an almost entirely uninterrupted supply of Nile water, " write Samuel Getachew and Simon Allison in The Continent. "[S]oon, Ethiopia will have the power to turn Egypt’s taps on and off."

  • Egypt is trying to rally international resistance, including at the UN Security Council. Ethiopia is determined to forge ahead.
  • The bottom line: Doing so could change the distribution of power — electrical and political — in the region.
4. Data du jour: Views on homosexuality

Acceptance of homosexuality is growing in most of the world, but not everywhere, according to Pew Research data from 34 countries.

Data: Pew Research Global Attitudes and Trends; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The trend: 54% of South Africans say homosexuality should be accepted in society, up from 32% in 2013.

  • Similarly large increases were documented in India (15% to 37%), Turkey (9% to 25%) and the U.S. (60% to 72%) — though Greece (53% to 48%) and Lebanon (18% to 13%) went in the opposite direction.

The gap: Vast majorities in Western European countries like France (86%) say homosexuality should be accepted, while some countries in the Middle East and Africa — Tunisia (9%), Kenya (14%) — are far less accepting. Israel (47%) is an exception.

  • In Poland, where gay rights have become a key issue in the current presidential campaign, supporters of the ruling Law and Justice party (36%) are less likely to accept homosexuality than opposition supporters (59%).
  • But in France, Germany, the U.K. and Sweden, even supporters of far-right parties overwhelmingly believe it should be accepted.

The flipside: Attitudes haven't changed globally as much as one might think. In 2002, 17% of Ukrainians, 22% of Russians, 38% of Bulgarians and 83% of Czechs said homosexuality should be accepted. Those numbers are all lower nearly two decades later.

Worth noting: The Philippines (73%), often viewed as socially conservative, is among the more progressive countries on this issue.

5. Russia: First the parade, then the voting

In Putin’s Russia, the parade comes before the election. Photo: Sergey Pyatakov/Host Photo Agency via Getty

Russians began voting today on the most significant package of constitutional changes since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Why it matters: The most significant of all is the clearing of President Vladimir Putin's term limits to allow him to remain in power until 2036.

Setting the scene: The referendum was postponed from April due to the pandemic and comes on the heels of a massive military parade to mark the anniversary of victory in World War II.

  • Voting will be spread over a week and include precautions to limit the spread of the virus.
  • The proposal would also enshrine social conservatism — "faith in god," opposition to gay marriage — into the constitution.
  • It would also give parliament new powers, including to appoint the prime minister, "while giving the president a greater say over the work of courts and prosecutors," per the WSJ.

Where things stand: Putin has been criticized for his hands-off approach to the coronavirus, but his proposal is nonetheless expected to pass.

  • A recent Levada Center poll shows 44% in favor and 32% opposed — but 55% of those certain to turn out plan to vote in favor.
  • Opposition leaders including Alexei Navalny are calling for a boycott. The Kremlin is offering incentives to boost turnout.

What to watch: The Levada Center's tracking poll puts Putin's approval rating at 59%, his lowest mark since September 1999, three months before he became president.

6. Out of this world: Searching for signs of life

Anyone home? Artist’s impression of the planets orbiting GJ 887. Credit: Mark Garlick

A small star only 11 light-years from our solar system may play host to a clutch of planets, one of which might be suitable for life, Axios' Miriam Kramer writes.

Why it matters: Because this star and its planets are relatively nearby, they're great candidates for follow-up studies that could one day allow scientists to peer into their atmospheres and figure out exactly what they're made of.

The intrigue: The scientists behind the study were also surprised that the relatively bright red dwarf star is quiet.

  • One possible world may orbit the star every 50 days and could be in its "habitable zone," the orbit around a star where a planet could support liquid water.

What's next: Scientists are on the verge of having the tools they need to study worlds orbiting distant stars more thoroughly, giving them a better sense of what types are habitable.

Go deeper

7. Stories we're watching

When you have that many medals, you can wear your mask however you want: World War II veterans in Volgograd. Photo: Kirill Braga/Host Photo Agency via Getty

  1. EU prepares to ban U.S. travelers as borders reopen
  2. Pubs in England are coming back
  3. Bolsonaro ordered by judge to wear mask
  4. Pentagon lists Chinese military-linked companies
  5. Kosovo president cancels D.C. visit after war crimes indictment
  6. Global debt to pass global GDP
  7. Saharan dust plume smothers Caribbean, nears U.S.
“As I strive to heal and recover, I find myself filling those gulfs with a love for you and for life that is vast, deep and more profound and comforting than what I’ve ever experienced before.”
— From a letter sent by Michael Kovrig, one of two Canadians detained in China in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, to his wife.
“Such options are within the rule of law and could open up space for resolution to the situation of the two Canadians."
— Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, directly linking the two cases despite China's previous claims they were unrelated.
Dave Lawler

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