Mar 30, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World for tonight's 1,765-word (6-minute) global tour.

  • Tell your friends and family to spice up their locked-down lives with Axios World, and if you haven't yet subscribed, please do so here.
  • Thanks for all the well wishes. I'm fortunate to have such a generous network of readers. There's a wedding update tucked into this edition.
1 big thing: The largest lockdown in history

A migrant worker on the move with his child, in Gurugram, India. Photo: Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty

Few moments better capture the world into which we've slipped than the decision of one man to order 1.4 billion into lockdown.

Why it matters: India’s three-week lockdown is the largest ever attempted, and it sparked South Asia's greatest migration since partition in 1947. While the economic effects could be devastating, the public health crisis it's intended to fend off could be more destructive still.

Driving the news: Prime Minister Narendra Modi today apologized to poor Indians for the hardships they'd suffered. But he defended the measures he announced last Tuesday, with virtually no warning, as brutal but necessary.

"If we don’t manage these 21 days, the country will be set back by 21 years.”
— Narendra Modi, on March 24

The big picture: Nearly half a billion Indians work informally, scraping by on construction sites, in restaurants and other such jobs. Many travel hundreds of miles to find work.

  • Lacking savings, suddenly jobless and with transport halted, untold thousands began desperate journeys toward their home villages on foot or in packed buses.
  • At least 22 people have reportedly already died on such journeys.

On the ground: “Among those stuck were Sanjay Kumar and his father, Ashok, both daily wage laborers,” Joanna Slater and Niha Masih write in the Washington Post:

  • “They had been trying for two days to travel from Delhi to their home 420 miles away.”
  • "His father had a fever, Sanjay Kumar said, and the two men were running out of money. The police, charged with implementing the lockdown measures, admonished them to get off the streets.”

Zoom out: Neighboring Nepal was also suddenly ordered into lockdown last week despite having just five confirmed cases, former Axios fellow and BBC Nepali journalist Phanindra Dahal tells me from Kathmandu:

  • Migrant workers returning from India have been stranded at the border. Even as hundreds have been rescued, more continue to arrive.
  • There have been shortages of cooking fuel and other staple supplies due to hoarding. Nepal's position is particularly precarious because it imports everything from food to fuel from India.
  • Tourism is shut down, including at Mt. Everest, another big blow to the economy.
  • As life moves online, rural areas with limited access are left behind. And because testing has been so limited (fewer than 1,000 tests have been conducted, nearly all of them in the capital) and health infrastructure is poor, a sharp rise in cases could be devastating.

The same is true in India, where the official totals of 1,251 cases and 32 deaths are almost meaningless given the lack of testing.

  • As in other developing countries, living conditions for many Indians make social distancing and regular handwashing near impossible.
  • India’s health care capacity is notoriously insufficient: “1 doctor per 11,600 people, 1 isolation bed per 84,000 people and a total of 40,000 ventilators for 1.37 billion people,” per Monkey Cage.

The bottom line: Before long, Modi’s dramatic step may again seem unthinkable. For now, there's concern it could be too little too late.

2. Latin America: U.S. bounty on Venezuela's leader

Maduro at a 2018 Independence Day parade. Photo: Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Justice Department dropped a bombshell last Thursday, charging Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and other senior officials with narco-terrorism and drug trafficking, while putting out a $15 million bounty for information leading to Maduro's arrest.

Why it matters: Maduro remains in power 14 months after the U.S. recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's president. While the U.S. has said all options are on the table if Maduro won't step down, it's clear by now that he won't leave voluntarily.

  • "By indicting Maduro, we are taking off the table the consideration of negotiating with him — not only for this administration, but I'd say permanently," says Fernando Cutz, who served as the National Security Council's South America director earlier in the Trump administration.

Still, Cutz argues the move will show the international community there's "hard evidence" of Maduro's criminal activity, and it will put a "target on his back" if he leaves the country.

  • "He can still go to Cuba, maybe he can still go to Russia, but he certainly can't go to Europe, and he can't go anywhere else," without fear of arrest, Cutz says.
  • Cutz says that while the bounty may seem bizarre, it will breed paranoia within Maduro's inner circle and could lead to a tipoff about any plans to leave the country.

Between the lines: The U.S. is amplifying its pressure campaign just as Venezuela's economic crisis is about to collide with a coronavirus crisis it's worryingly ill-equipped to handle.

  • As with Iran, some are calling for a loosening of sanctions. Cutz, however, contends Maduro would use the revenues to enrich himself and buy the loyalties of key players.
  • Still, he says, the U.S. is so deeply involved in Venezuela's crisis that if it doesn't provide significant humanitarian assistance, "we're going to show the people of Venezuela that when times are really tough, we weren't there."
3. State of the outbreak
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

1. With Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continuing to dismiss the coronavirus as "sniffles," unlikely actors have stepped in: Twitter and drug gangs.

  • “Whoever is caught on the street will learn how to respect the measure. ... If the government is unable to manage, organized crime resolves,” a gang in one Rio de Janeiro slum warned residents via WhatsApp, per the FT.
  • Zoom in: Brazil's fast-growing outbreak likely began with wealthy business travelers but has spread to domestic workers and other poorer Brazilians. The country has 4,371 confirmed cases with 141 deaths.

2. Japan has managed to avoid a large coronavirus outbreak to date, but life may now be easing back toward normal too soon.

  • Some large gatherings have gone ahead, social distancing has waned and even the prime minister's wife was photographed at a crowded cherry blossom viewing party.
  • “Now the first wave is almost under control ... but the second wave has already started,” Hitoshi Oshitani, a virology professor and scientific adviser to the Japanese government told the Washington Post. “It is probably going to be much worse."

3. Belarus is the only European country that is still playing soccer. Why? Because "Europe's last dictator" said so, Axios' Kendall Baker writes.

  • President Alexander Lukashenko has prescribed not social distancing but saunas, vodka and "hard work."
  • With a dearth of other options, TV networks in nearby countries are now broadcasting the Belarusian Premier League for the first time.
Data du jour: U.S. short on hospital beds
Adapted from OECD; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Go deeper

4. Europe's newest (temporary?) dictator

Viktor Orbán. Photo: Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

Hungary's parliament passed a law Monday to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orbán almost unlimited power, for an indefinite period, to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

Why it matters: Hungary has taken a sharply authoritarian turn over the past decade under Orbán, and it's likely that he and other strongman leaders around the world will seek to maintain powers they gain during the current crisis long after it's over.

Details: The new law puts Hungary into a state of emergency with no time limit. Orbán will be allowed to rule by decree, and all elections will be suspended.

  • Orbán's Fidesz party controls parliament, along with most of the media and government institutions. It passed the law despite opposition from rival parties and civil society.
  • It includes "jail terms of up to five years for intentionally spreading misinformation that hinders the government response to the pandemic, leading to fears that it could be used to censor or self-censor criticism of the government response," per The Guardian.

Where things stand: Hungary has 447 confirmed coronavirus cases with 15 deaths. Limited testing means the case count could be significantly higher.

5. Protest movements frozen in time

Hong Kong, before the virus. Photo: Laurel Chor/Getty Images

The year of the mass uprising has collided with the year of the coronavirus lockdown, leaving protest movements around the world stalled. 

The big picture: The enduring images of 2019 are of protest — from Hong Kong to Khartoum, across the Middle East and through much of Latin America. Seemingly overnight, though, social distancing has made such mass demonstrations almost unthinkable.

Hong Kong’s protests raged for most of 2019, but left existential questions about relations with mainland China unresolved heading into the new year.

  • During the protests, face masks were worn as a symbol of defiance and protection against tear gas. Now, the same masks are worn to protect against infection, AP notes.

Planned protests are on hold everywhere from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

  • In Paris earlier this month, police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse Yellow Vest protesters who defied a ban on large gatherings.
  • Climate activist Greta Thunberg has, for the time being, gone from leading young people on climate marches to urging them to stay home.

Protesters are adapting to the times — from banging pots on balconies in Brazil to gathering in a massive virtual demonstration in Israel.

  • But the sorts of mass protests that brought down five world leaders in 2019 are on hold just about everywhere.

Where things stand: Women in Mexico attempted a novel tactic on March 9. To protest violence against women, they held a “day without women” by staying inside their homes all day. 

  • Now, the world has moved inside. It’s the streets that are empty.

Read the full piece

6. What I'm reading: "MBS"

John Kerry with MBS in 2016, before the world knew his name. Photo: Molly Riley/AFP via Getty Images

My overriding sensation in reading "MBS," Ben Hubbard’s new account of how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power in Saudi Arabia, was of whiplash.

The time elapsed between, say, hosting a gathering of global VIPs and indefinitely detaining some of the kingdom’s richest people can be measured in hours.

Everything about MBS seems to have happened in fast-forward.

  • As of 2015, few people outside of Saudi Arabia knew who he was.
  • Since then, he has launched a war in Yemen, won a prince-on-prince power struggle, defanged the religious police, mobilized an international blockade on Qatar, ended bans on women driving and mass entertainment, kidnapped a foreign head of state, made an enemy of the world’s richest man, wooed an American administration, and become an international pariah.
  • He’s still just 34.

After reading the book, I understand a bit better how MBS won over so many in the U.S. and around the world. Many found his ambition and energy intoxicating.

I also have a greater appreciation of how MBS removed nearly all checks on his power through brutality and fear.

  • “[T]he royal family no longer functioned as it once had,” Hubbard writes. “MBS has destroyed that system, extending his control over the military, the oil industry, the intelligence services, the police, the National Guard, replacing senior princes with younger ones who answered to him."

The bottom line: MBS’ plans to modernize Saudi Arabia socially and economically are truly revolutionary. But to trust that vision, you have to trust MBS.

Bonus: A personal update

Bride and groom(ish). Photo: Phil Dazo

In the end, we weren't technically able to get married over the weekend.

  • But we did get dressed up, slip on the rings and have a wedding toast with our families (on video, and in one case through a retirement home window).
  • We're unlawfully wedded, and that will do just fine for now.
7. Stories we're watching

Strolling past a mural of the days before social distancing, in Dubai. Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

  1. Inside the great virus airlift
  2. What the U.S. can learn from other countries' coronavirus fights
  3. China temporarily bars foreigners to stop coronavirus
  4. Putin postpones constitutional referendum
  5. Iranian-backed militias increase attacks on U.S. troops
  6. North Korea launches more ballistic missiles
  7. The shady world of African hoops recruiting


"When we launched the appeal last night, we hoped to get 250,000 volunteers over a few days. ... In just 24 hours, 405,000 people have responded to the call."
— U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the "volunteer army" helping the National Health Service cope with coronavirus overload