May 5, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Hello and welcome to tonight's 1,499-word (6-minute) edition of Axios World. It's bookended by two things some readers may find interminable — lockdowns and baseball.

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Situational awareness: Since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion yesterday that “enormous evidence” indicates COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, anonymous Australian, British and American intelligence officials have briefed media outlets that there’s currently little to go on beyond speculation.

1 big thing: Looking back on locking down

A long-awaited passeggiata, in Rome. Photo: Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis via Getty Images

The world now appears to be moving beyond peak lockdown, with at least 12 countries loosening restrictions today.

  • Italy, which imposed the first national lockdown eight weeks ago, is now allowing some social interaction. India also began to tentatively loosen the largest lockdown in history.

Why it matters: While regions and countries will likely be forced to reimpose lockdowns as the pandemic develops, we may not again see half of humanity constrained at the same time.

Flashback: As Europe and much of the world was beginning to clamp down, a vocal minority of experts and politicians made three broad arguments against locking down.

1. The public would not comply for long enough to make lockdowns effective.

  • In March, the scientists who advised the British government against imposing a lockdown predicted that people would get “fed up” and the “effectiveness would wane” unless the harshest restrictions were limited to a relatively short period near the peak of the outbreak.
  • Where things stand: Even in liberal democracies, populations clearly have made major, sustained behavioral changes that have in turn slowed the spread of the virus. In addition, lockdowns have overwhelming approval virtually everywhere they’ve been imposed.
  • However, a corollary claim made by the chief scientific advisers in the U.K. and Sweden — that a pattern of loosening and then tightening lockdowns will erode public trust over time — has not yet been tested.
  • That leads us to argument No. 2.

2. The virus will be with us for some time and locking down will only make renewed outbreaks more dangerous, because there will be less immunity in the population.

  • That logic informed Sweden's plan to shield the vulnerable but otherwise only isolate people once they experience symptoms.
  • On the one hand: Sweden's chief epidemiologist projects that 25% of Stockholm's population currently has antibodies, and "herd immunity" could be achieved there "within weeks."
  • On the other hand: Sweden's death rate is currently far higher than its locked-down neighbors, and we don't know how long immunity from the virus will last.
  • The U.K. also abandoned its similar approach after concluding that its hospitals would be overrun.

3. Closing schools and businesses while forcing people into isolation will ultimately do more damage than the virus itself.

  • This argument from politicians and business leaders seemed to fade in Europe and the U.S. as the scale of the pandemic became clear, though it has returned amid the debate over when and how to reopen.
  • On the one hand: Reducing deaths from the coronavirus clearly benefits society and the economy, neither of which would be functioning normally even without shutdowns.
  • On the other hand: The damage from lockdowns will be lasting, particularly in the developing world. Leaders including Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan have warned that preventing deaths from COVID-19 will mean causing deaths from hunger because people need daily earnings to feed their families.

The bottom line: Many leaders who have imposed lockdowns quite reasonably argue that, considering the alternatives, they really had no choice.

  • But while the debate looks different on the other side of peak lockdown, it's a long way from over.
2. Spain and Italy search for the exit

Back on the beach, in Barcelona. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Italy and Spain, the hardest-hit countries outside of the U.S., are both beginning gradual reopenings this week.

The big picture: Both countries have emphasized bringing back industry before retail, in contrast with U.S. states like Georgia, Axios' Orion Rummler writes.

In Italy, manufacturing plants and construction sites will reopen this week, while museums and shops will reopen on May 18 if infection rates stay low, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told parliament on Thursday.

  • Restaurants and bars are scheduled to stay closed until June under the current plan, while schools would reopen in September.
  • The government said those in "relationships of steady affection" would now be allowed to socialize. That led to considerable confusion, and later a clarification: Extended families can gather. Friends cannot.

In Spain, small businesses will be open by appointment only — even for shops that would not typically require them.

  • Restaurants and cafes can only offer delivery. Tourist activity is allowed "without using common areas," and athletes must train alone. Shopping centers will remain closed.
  • Children were recently allowed to play outside for the first time in six weeks, and factories and construction resumed operations last week.
  • Absent a spike in infections, restaurants and bars can open on May 18 at 30% capacity, with outdoor seating only. Places of worship will also be limited to 30% capacity.
  • Spain's best-case scenario would see all restrictions lifted by the end of June.
3. The dangers of moving too fast, or too slow

Photo: Thomas Peter/AFP via Getty Images

1. An internal government document obtained by the NY Times lays out the stakes of reopening economies too early, as its model anticipates up to 200,000 new cases per day in the U.S. as of June 1 (compared to 25,000 now).

  • While cases are down in New York, "There remains a large number of counties whose burden continues to grow," the report warned.
  • This undermines the Trump administration's efforts to turn away from a daily discussion of death tolls to emphasize the safe "reopening" of the American economy, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports.

2. China, meanwhile, is so fearful of new outbreaks that it's clamping down hard in cities like Harbin — which has just 63 confirmed bases, the Economist reports:

  • "Alone among large countries with many land neighbors, it wants [transmission] as close to zero as possible, and will endure pain to achieve that."
  • "Should others open up, China will look more and more unusual: a giant economy repeatedly slamming on the brakes to smother even small clusters. If effective vaccines or treatments fail to emerge, that cannot be sustainable forever."
4. State of the outbreak
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The leaders of nations, banks and organizations gathered Monday via video conference for an EU-led summit, collectively pledging 7.4 billion euros ($8 billion) toward research for a coronavirus vaccine, Axios’ Ursula Perano writes.

  • The U.S. was notably absent, AP reports, even as "heads of state and government from Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Jordan, South Africa and Turkey spoke at the event, along with China’s EU ambassador” and many top-level European participants.
  • Why it matters: A massive international effort will be needed to distribute a vaccine, if and when one becomes available. Go deeper.

Keep an eye on: Russia has experienced four consecutive days of record single-day increases in new coronavirus cases. Global updates.

5. World news roundup: Wildest weekend headlines

"Did you miss me?" Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

1. Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro regime says it thwarted an attempted “invasion” on Sunday, killing eight and capturing two of the “mercenaries” who arrived by speedboat.

  • A former Venezuelan military officer and a former U.S. Green Beret claimed that clash was only one element of a wider operation, which they’d been attempting (unsuccessfully) to coordinate with the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition.
  • Opposition leader Juan Guaidó denied any links to the operation and claimed the regime was simply trying to divert attention from its failings.

2. Three officials in Prague, including the mayor, are now under police protection due to alleged threats from Russia.

  • Moscow has fumed over two incidents: the removal of a statue of a Soviet army commander from a park, and the push to rename the square in front of the Russian Embassy after Boris Nemtsov, the slain Russian opposition leader.
  • A local media outlet reported that a Russian agent was sent to Prague carrying a deadly poison, though that has not been confirmed.

3. Madagascar now plans to export a dubious “cure” for the coronavirus to countries including Tanzania, the Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau.

  • The WHO says there’s no evidence the herbal drink, made from the artemisia plant, has any positive effect.
  • That didn’t stop Tanzanian President John Magufuli — who previously urged his people to pack places of worship to seek god’s protection from the virus — from vowing in a TV address to send a plane to pick some up.

4. Kim Jong-un is back with a bang.

  • He opened a fertilizer factory on Friday after a three-week public absence.
  • Then on Sunday, North and South Korean troops exchanged fire across the DMZ. There were no casualties, and the whole thing may have started accidentally.
6. Opening Day, a long way away

An RBI single for the Rakuten Monkeys. Photo: Gene Wang/Getty Images

There’s nothing more American than baseball — except for right now.

On the one hand: America has spent 187 days since we last had baseball, and is likely living through the largest MLB stoppage in the league’s history, Axios’ Kendall Baker writes in a glorious ode to America’s missing pastime.

On the other: That stoppage could give Asian baseball an unprecedented international showcase.

  • 580,000 people around the world watched an English-language broadcast of a recent Taiwanese league game, the FT reports.
  • “In Taiwan, the unexpected attention has had an emotional and political impact.”
  • “Here, baseball is a vehicle of national pride and identity in a very unusual way,” said Andrew Morris, who has written a book on the history of baseball in the country. “It marks them for being different from China.”
  • “Now the sudden interest in Taiwan baseball has created another chance to build soft power and ease its China-imposed isolation.”

ESPN, meanwhile, has inked a deal to air six South Korean baseball games per week, starting with tomorrow’s season opener.

  • Pick your team now. Who needs the Minnesota Twins when you’ve got Seoul's LG Twins?
7. Stories we're watching

Herd immunity? Badain Jaran Desert, Inner Mongolia. Photo: Wang Zheng/VCG via Getty Images

  1. Pompeo pushing Wuhan Lab theory
  2. U.S. concerned by China's role in Israel infrastructure bid
  3. Trudeau announces ban on assault-style weapons
  4. Vietnam's economy could boom after coronavirus recovery
  5. Central banks load up for a long war
  6. Coronavirus could doom soccer's transfer market
  7. Air travel will never be the same

Quoted:

"It was a tough old moment, I won’t deny it. They had a strategy to deal with a ‘death of Stalin’-type scenario."
— Boris Johnson, revealing that doctors had prepared to announce his death while he was in intensive care with COVID-19
Dave Lawler