Mar 12, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. I hope you’re doing things that make you happy during what has been a worrying week.

  • This 1,620-word (6-minute) edition is focused mainly on the global coronavirus crisis, but next week I’m determined to bring you news from beyond the outbreak. If there’s anything you’d like to read, let me know:
  • Please help spread the word about this newsletter, and if this email was forwarded to you sign up here.
  • Heads-up: We have a special report about the coronavirus coming this weekend. As a subscriber to this newsletter, you'll see that in your inbox from Mike Allen on Saturday.

Situational awareness: “U.S. retaliatory strikes underway in Iraq following deadly attack on U.S., British troops,” Reuters reports.

1 big thing: Unprepared and on your own

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The world was not prepared for a pandemic. When one struck, international coordination broke down rather than ramping up.

Why it matters: The lack of preparedness has left countries, including the U.S., scrambling to craft a response once the novel coronavirus had already reached their shores. The dearth of global coordination could both exacerbate the crisis and make it more difficult to recover from.

Driving the news: President Trump's decision to shut down travel from Europe last night blindsided the EU, which responded with a terse statement noting the lack of "consultation."

  • Some Europeans saw politics at play in Trump's exemption of the U.K., which has a significant outbreak.
  • But the Europeans have also struggled to put forward a united front. France and Germany were both criticized by Brussels for limiting exports of medical gear to other countries in the bloc.
  • Countries across the continent are rolling out new and diverging measures — closing schools, canceling public gatherings — to stave off the "Italy scenario."

The U.S., meanwhile, has been slow to adopt best practices from countries like South Korea, particularly around testing.

  • Trump has emphasized that the U.S.' response will be the strongest in the world because it has "the best scientists and doctors."
  • But Lisa Monaco, who served as Barack Obama's former Homeland Security adviser (2013–2017), tells Axios the U.S. squandered the time bought by China's aggressive (if belated) containment efforts and the travel restrictions Trump imposed on China.

"As we saw this coming out of China in December, there should have really been ramping up," says Monaco, who was warning that a pandemic like this one might strike long before it did.

  • “If you’re thinking about a worst-case scenario here, you would be thinking, do we have sufficient testing capacity? How are we going to have surge capacity for hospitals and the health care system? What is going to be the need for personal protective equipment?”
  • What we're now seeing, Monaco says, is "the foreseeable result of neglect of this issue as the top threat that it is.”

Flashback: When Ebola was ravaging West Africa in 2014, the U.S. led a global effort to contain it there and prevent a global pandemic.

  • This virus is far more contagious, but there have thus far been relatively few cases in sub-Saharan Africa and other areas where health infrastructure is weakest.
  • That's likely to change. But when it does, wealthy countries battling their own outbreaks are unlikely to deploy scarce resources to the developing world — particularly in the current nationalist climate.

The big picture: That's particularly concerning given this virus won't truly be contained anywhere until it's contained everywhere, says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • "Every country is going to be at a different phase of this challenge. I just don’t know how much excess capacity or bandwidth anyone will have if they’re facing Italy-like situations."
  • "China, if it is in fact past the worst, might have some excess capacity."

The bottom line: "It’s just shocking that here in this country, we dealt with it so badly that we’re not in a position to help ourselves, and we’re not in a position to help others," Haass says.

2. U.S. vs. China vs. coronavirus

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

China wants to show its citizens and the world that it is on course for victory in the "people's war" against the virus.

Driving the news: A government medical adviser said today that the outbreak had passed its peak, two days after President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Wuhan.

  • Factories are reopening as the government attempts to bring the economy back to life.
  • China is also looking outward, at a time when the U.S. is just coming to grips with its own outbreak. It dispatched doctors and medical equipment yesterday to Italy.

What to watch: China's propaganda machine is whirring into gear with the message that Beijing's decisive response bought the world precious time.

The flipside: National security adviser Robert O’Brien claims an initial cover-up of the coronavirus in China “cost the world community two months” and exacerbated the global outbreak.

  • "I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened in China and what’s now happening across the world," he said yesterday at the Heritage Foundation.

The bottom line: In the face of a global crisis, the world’s two most powerful countries are pointing fingers at one another.

Worth noting: Chinese propaganda has centered on another reality-defying narrative, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian writes: that the outbreak may not have started in China at all.

Go deeper: Read Bethany's piece

3. Bolsonaro aide tests positive

Bolsonaro (L) at dinner with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, March 7. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's press secretary tested positive for coronavirus today, five days after taking part in meetings with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Zoom in: Fabio Wajngarten, the aide, was photographed with Trump on Saturday.

  • Trump told reporters at the White House that he was "not concerned" about potentially having been exposed to the virus.
  • The White House says Trump will not be tested and does not intend to self-quarantine.

A far-right populist, Bolsonaro had dismissed the alarm around the virus as a "fantasy" spread by the media as recently as Tuesday.

  • Wajngarten was at dinner with Trump on Saturday and later attended a party attended by several members of the Trump family, including the president.

North of the border ... Justin Trudeau is self-isolating after his wife returned from the U.K. with mild symptoms. She is being tested for the coronavirus.

4. The state of the outbreak

1. French President Emmanuel Macron announced the closure of all schools and universities today, saying his country was “only at the start of the epidemic that is accelerating and worsening everywhere in Europe.”

  • France has also banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

2. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson declined to take such steps today, but he gave a sober address and warned, "many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time."

  • Johnson’s health advisers said the peak of the epidemic is likely several weeks away, and they were concerned that taking drastic steps now could mean "people's enthusiasm runs out too early" — just as the danger is greatest.
  • The U.K.'s chief medical officer also said people with mild symptoms should remain at home for seven days and did not need to be tested.

3. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a temporary national unity government to combat the virus following last week's inconclusive elections.

4. El Salvador has declared a 21-day coronavirus quarantine despite the fact that it has no known cases thus far.

  • “Italy wishes they could’ve done this before,” President Nayib Bukele said in a national address on Wednesday. “Our health system is not at Italy’s level.”

5. Deaths in Italy topped 1,000 as the country entered into a nationwide lockdown, with all shops closed except those selling food, medicine or other essentials.

What to watch: U.S. and Iran square off again

“U.S. defense officials said Thursday that an attack on a base in Iraq that killed two U.S. troops was carried out by Iranian-backed militia groups and that the military is waiting for President Trump to decide how to respond,” per the Washington Post.

“Let me be clear: The United States will not tolerate attacks against our people, our interests or our allies. All options are on the table as we work with our partners to bring the perpetrators to justice and maintain deterrence.”
— Defense Secretary Mark Esper
5. The men meeting the moment

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The fate of countries around the world lies in a very few individual politicians' hands — more so than at any other time in half a century or more, Axios' Felix Salmon writes:

  • Two politicians in particular, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin, wiped about $20 trillion off the value of the world's oil reserves this week when they failed to come to an agreement on cutting oil production.
  • That's more than $2,500 per human being on the planet.

The spread of the novel coronavirus is similarly a function of decisive action by heads of state, or the lack thereof.

  • The Chinese government, through inaction, allowed COVID-19 to grow to the degree that global infections were inevitable. Subsequent Chinese actions, however, were decisive and effective.
  • South Korea has also been effective in combating the coronavirus and has managed to do so through "openness and transparency" rather than lockdowns.
  • Trump, by contrast, sent markets into a series of tailspins by talking about the virus as a political attack rather than as an epidemiological emergency.
6. Putin forever?

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde. Photos via Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russia's parliament approved constitutional amendments backed by President Vladimir Putin that, among other changes, could allow him to remain in power until 2036 by resetting his presidential tenure after his current term ends in 2024.

  • Russia's Duma applied the rubber stamp in a 383-0 vote, with 43 abstentions.

The state of play: The question of what will happen at the end of Putin's current term has loomed over Russia, leading him to propose sweeping constitutional changes earlier this year.

  • Putin's proposals, rolled out in January, would divert some presidential powers to parliament and empower the unelected State Council — a body many expected him to lead.
  • But Tuesday's move to throw his support behind the term limits change could indicate he does not intend to change roles at all.
  • However, some experts caution that he may just be keeping his options open.

Between the lines: Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow, tells Axios that the news has been met with "a lot of confusion."

  • "It looks like his initial plan ran into opposition from those around him who fear for their position," Trenin says.

Where things stand: Russia's Kremlin-compliant constitutional court must approve the changes before they go before the Russian people in a national referendum on April 22.

  • Putin, 67, has been in power for 20 years. The changes could allow him to remain in the Kremlin for another 16 — with two six-year terms following his current mandate.

Go deeper: 20 Years of Putin: From KGB to Kremlin

7. Stories we're watching

Sometimes a headline says it all ("Everyone at home"), in Salerno, Italy. Photo: Ivan Romano/Getty Images

  1. The next dominoes in the coronavirus economy
  2. How to beat back the coronavirus
  3. The trade war meets the virus
  4. U.S. troops begin withdrawing from Afghanistan
  5. OPEC-Russia oil price war escalates
  6. What the oil market's collapse means for the climate
  7. Europe, Russia delay Mars mission to 2022


"During the past year, obviously, we have had moments of crisis. A lot of that is fantasy. And coronavirus, which is not all the mainstream media makes it out to be."
— Jair Bolsonaro, on Tuesday
"Bolsonaro is being monitored and tested for coronavirus."
— Reuters, Thursday
Dave Lawler