Jun 18, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World and thanks as always for joining me. I hope the curve is bent and the weekend sunny wherever you are.

  • Tonight's edition starts with a preview of the world after the pandemic. Then onto contested borders, budgets and books (1,759 words, 6.5 minutes).
  • Thanks for spreading the word. If you're not a subscriber, change that here.
1 big thing: The world beyond the pandemic

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Things will never truly return to "normal" after the coronavirus. That's cause for eager anticipation, and also for dread.

What to expect: The world after COVID-19 will be poorer, at least for a time. 

  • It will be more unequal too, both within countries — where many skimmed along without coffee meetings and business trips, while others performed newly dangerous jobs, or lost them — and between them. 
  • Developing nations were hit earliest and hardest, and they'll likely be slowest to recover.

That’s some of the bad news, but perhaps not all of it. 

The other side: There's cause for optimism among the rubble. Practices and institutions that endured only through inertia before the pandemic may be halted, and then reversed.

  • Systemic racism, inadequate health care and incompetent governance have all been laid bare. Unprecedented displays of international solidarity have filled streets from Minneapolis to Nairobi.
  • Technologies and ideas that already existed are now being put to widespread use — to conduct business, education and health care remotely, for example.
  • Crises have historically yielded innovation and creativity, as the FT’s Tim Harford documents. After the Plague came the Renaissance; after the Great Depression, the New Deal.
  • For starters, medical research is now moving with unprecedented urgency. That haste has its own dangers, but the breakthroughs that are achieved will likely facilitate others.

What to watch: Innovation may surface in surprising ways. It was the death of thousands of horses in an 1815 famine, the Economist notes, that led Karl von Drais to invent the bicycle.

  • Incidentally, demand for bicycles has never been higher. That’s in part due to the difficulties of traveling through our pandemic world. 
  • But it’s also indicative of a more encouraging trend, backed up by polling data. After so much time spent in our homes, we’re finding greater appreciation in the world outside.

The bottom line: The pandemic won't only change the world, but also the way we look at it.

2. Interview: The great COVID-19 airlift

A WFP plane drops food aid in South Sudan in February. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

The pandemic is not only making it harder for people in developing countries to afford food, it's making it harder to get food and supplies into those countries in the first place.

Zoom in: The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is tasked with filling many of those gaps, supplying food aid to 100 million people. Since late March, it has also been transporting health workers, medical supplies and other humanitarian cargo all over the world through its Humanitarian Air Service.

“At some point we ended up being the largest airline flying, in a way,” Amer Daoudi, who oversees logistics for WFP, tells Axios.

  • They’ve established regional hubs in Asia, Africa and Latin America. More than 120 countries are expecting supplies just in the next six weeks.
  • “Basically today, in many countries around the world, we’re the only game in town,” Daoudi says. That applies to getting supplies in and getting evacuees out.
  • The supplies are provided at no cost to the local country — particularly important given the well-documented phenomenon of wealthier countries outbidding poorer ones for PPE and medical equipment.

There’s a problem. “By the third week of July, unless we urgently receive funding, we will have to suspend our services," Daoudi says.

  • He'll be sounding the alarm tomorrow at the UN, calling on both donor countries and the private sector to step up.
  • “I keep warning, don't look at Europe easing up and think we have seen how bad the situation will get with this virus,” he says, noting that case counts are going up in the developing world.

What to watch: WFP director David Beasley, meanwhile, is warning of a possible "hunger pandemic," with famine spreading to up to 35 countries and the number of hungry people worldwide doubling.

  • The pandemic is deepening poverty, which breeds hunger, which leads to cycles of migration and instability.

Some better news: U.K. researchers say they've found a life-saving coronavirus drug.

3. Asia: Blood in the Himalayas

Indian troops man the border. Photo: Faisal Khan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On a mountain ridge, in darkness, with improvised weapons that appear almost medieval, Indian and Chinese soldiers fought to the death.

Driving the news: They slung stones but not bullets. Many of the casualties — 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese — fell to their deaths. They were the first fatalities from combat between India and China in at least 45 years.

  • On one side: India's troops were patrolling an area of the Galwan Valley from which China had agreed to withdraw when they walked into a carefully orchestrated ambush, a senior Indian official claims to The Hindu newspaper.
  • On the other: China claims the Indian soldiers crossed the border and “provoked” its troops.

The history

  • China never accepted its colonial-era border with India, and those tensions turned to war in 1962. China prevailed, and the new status quo became the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
  • While there have been repeated clashes near the LAC since, both sides have agreed not to use guns to help avoid another war.
  • But competition between the Asian giants has been increasing as China flexes its muscles in the region, including with its Belt and Road initiative, and India moves closer to the U.S.

What’s next

  • Indian media and public opinion are in an uproar, but while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed the soldiers did not die “in vain,” the government's messaging has been restrained.
  • China, meanwhile, has said little through officials or state media. The instinct on both sides seems to be de-escalation.

What to watch: After the biggest crisis in decades, though, “Sini-Indian relations can never go back to the old normal,” says Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment. “They will reset with greater competitiveness and in ways that neither country had actually intended at the beginning of this crisis.”

4. World News roundup: Arrests, explosions and annexation

Duda with Trump last June. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty

1. Police arrested a close friend of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's today in a corruption inquiry that also involves Bolsonaro's son, per the Guardian.

  • This is one of the multiple investigations swirling around Bolsonaro's family and inner circle.
  • Bolsonaro is also losing support due to his widely criticized response to the coronavirus, though his base of hardcore supporters is rallying around him.

2. North Korea is wiping out all remnants of the detente with South Korea that began in 2018, and taking dramatic symbolic steps — including one explosion — to signal a new more hostile era in relations.

  • Experts generally view this as a play for leverage from Kim Jong-un’s regime, which has expressed fury over propaganda leaflets from South Korea and America's unwillingness to loosen sanctions amid a severe COVID-related economic downturn.
  • Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, has been taking a central role in the rhetorical offensive from Pyongyang. Go deeper.

3. A judge who was investigating Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Tshisekedi's chief of staff for corruption died not of a heart attack, as had been claimed, but of stab wounds to the head.

  • The DRC's justice minister has announced a murder investigation. Vital Kamerhe, the Tshisekedi aide, is the most high-profile politician to have faced trial for corruption in the DRC, per the BBC.
  • He says charges that he embezzled more than $50 million are politically motivated.

4. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented four annexation scenarios in a meeting last night with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports.

  • The plans included maps and ranged from annexing 30% of the West Bank to a more symbolic annexation of a small amount of land.
  • What to watch: The pushback against the annexation plan from America's Arab allies is getting stronger. Go deeper.

5. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met his Chinese counterpart for seven hours in Hawaii on Wednesday.

  • Both sides claimed the other requested the meeting. Neither offered much detail about the nature of the talks.

6. President Trump will welcome his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, to the White House on Wednesday, four days before the Polish presidential election.

  • Why it matters: The visit is the first from a foreign leader since early March, and a political gift to Duda and Poland's populist ruling party, Law and Justice.
  • It also comes as Trump is considering increasing U.S. troop presence in Poland and decreasing it in Germany.
  • Trump has embraced the Polish government during its showdown with the EU over encroachment on the rule of law.
5. Middle East: Syria's economic catastrophe

Buying hard currency, in Idlib. Photo: Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty

New U.S. sanctions targeting Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and those who fund it are likely to increase pressure on the Syrian government — and deepen the country's economic crisis.

Why it matters: Syria's dictator now faces protests in the street, a currency shock and internal divisions highlighted by a public feud with his billionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf.

  • He has survived nine years of civil war and won back most of a country that is now largely destroyed.

Details: The Caesar Act, named for a photographer who secretly documented the regime's humanitarian abuses, targets 39 individuals and entities, many of whom are already under sanctions. Assad's wife, Asma, was sanctioned for the first time.

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sanctions target "anyone doing business with the Assad regime, no matter where in the world they are." That's a warning to Assad's patrons, Russia and Iran.
  • The administration says the sanctions would be lifted if Assad stopped his human rights abuses or agreed to a political transition. Neither seems likely.

The big picture: While the sanctions may increase the pressure on Assad, they'll also deepen an economic downturn that has been compounded by an equally deep financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon.

  • Assad has responded to the crisis by firing his prime minister and is attempting to squeeze revenues out of others accused of corruption, including Makhlouf.
  • Protests are now being seen in areas that hadn't previously risen up against Assad amid rising fears of famine. He has threatened yet another violent crackdown.
6. Data du jour: Divided over diversity

A new Pew report looks at how views on diversity vary across 11 countries.

Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

The big picture: Younger people and those who interact regularly with people of other races and ethnicities are far more likely to view increased diversity favorably.

Zoom in:

  • In Jordan and Lebanon, which have both seen large flows of Syrian refugees, people tend to think increased diversity has made their countries worse, though 76% of Jordanians hold favorable views of refugees themselves while 70% of Lebanese view refugees unfavorably.
  • 54% of Colombians and 48% of Mexicans view the migrants arriving there (mostly from Venezuela and Central America, respectively) unfavorably.
  • Jordanians and Lebanese view all major religious groups overwhelmingly favorably. In India, 93% of Muslims view Hindus favorably, while 65% of Hindus view Muslims favorably. In Tunisia, 64% of people view Shiites unfavorably.
Bonus: Allies could shift U.S.-China scientific balance of power
Adapted from Center for Security and Emerging Technology using OECD data; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The U.S. and China are the world's biggest spenders on research and development but still only make up about half of global investment, Axios’ Alison Snyder reports. Go deeper.

7. Stories we're watching

Door-to-door screenings in Mumbai, India. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty

  1. Beijing cancels flights, closes schools after new outbreak
  2. Zoom walks U.S.-China tightrope
  3. Trump shakes up Voice of America
  4. WHO halts hydroxychloroquine trials
  5. How the CIA's biggest breach happened
  6. Germany to invest €300 million in vaccine developer
  7. English Premier League returns


"Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do."
— John Bolton

Go deeper on Bolton's book

Dave Lawler

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