Mar 16, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World. Hope you're healthy and happy in these crazy times.

  • Tonight's 1,634-word (6-minute) edition starts with the coronavirus, but then takes you away from the virus and around the world.
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1 big thing: U.K. counters coronavirus consensus

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

With the world shutting down and spreading out, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has — in the course of four days — shown what an alternative approach to the coronavirus pandemic might look like, and why it's nearly impossible to execute.

The big picture: Johnson, flanked by his scientific advisers, laid out a strategy premised on some crucial concessions: tens of millions of Britons could be infected, many would die, and the danger would loom for many months — with fresh waves expected in the autumn and beyond.

  • Johnson eschewed lockdowns and closures like those being implemented around Europe. They'd either have to remain in place for several months, he said, or be loosened when the risk of infection was even higher. 
  • The economic and social costs would be tremendous. People would only willingly comply for so long.

Johnson — who has throughout the crisis abandoned populist bravado in favor of somber deference to expertise — charted a different course last Thursday:

  • The U.K. would try to shield those most at risk of death or serious illness while allowing others to go about the world more or less as normal — isolating themselves at home for a week only if they begin to experience symptoms.
  • Most would recover without the need for hospitalization, or even a test.
  • “By the time they come out of their cocooning,” chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said of at-risk individuals, “herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”
  • The policy response would be dialed up as needed to prevent hospitals from being overrun. Schools and pubs may well close, but not until it was both necessary and effective.

There were at least two major vulnerabilities to Johnson’s plan: 

  1. What if the initial spread grew out of control before policies could be ratcheted up?
  2. What if the more stringent measures taken elsewhere in Europe succeeded in slowing the spread, while the U.K. marched on toward tens of thousands of deaths?

Driving the news: It was the first scenario, along with public pressure, that forced Johnson’s hand today.

  • Four days after estimating the U.K. was a month behind Italy’s trajectory, Vallance said it was more like three. The danger in London was growing faster still.
  • With the U.K. entering the “fast-growth part of the upward curve” ahead of schedule, Johnson asked the British people to work from home when possible and avoid nearly all “social contact” — no pub visits, soccer matches or dense crowds.
  • He asked high-risk individuals to isolate themselves for 12 weeks, beginning this weekend. School closures could be next.
"Clearly what we’re announcing today is a very significant change in the way we want people to live their lives, and I can’t remember anything like it in my lifetime. I don’t think there’s really been anything like it in peacetime. And we have to accept that it’s a very significant psychological, behavioral change that we’re asking you, we’re asking the public, the nation to do."
— Boris Johnson

The bottom line: The U.K.’s approach is starting to converge with those of similarly affected countries. It’s easier to join the herd than set off on your own.

2. The state of the outbreak

In Italy, the number of deaths continues to rise — 368 on Sunday alone — and frustration is growing with the EU for its lack of support.

  • “It is back to the future, where Italy is left on its own,” Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome, told the FT. “It was the case with the eurozone crisis, then the migrant crisis of 2015-16 and now the coronavirus crisis. It is the same old story and the political implications could be massive.”

In Spain, schools, bars and restaurants were ordered to close starting Saturday, while citizens were told to stay at home unless absolutely necessary.

  • France and Israel also closed restaurants and entertainment venues — although France went ahead with local elections.
  • Canada announced that it would close its borders to all foreign nationals, with exemptions for Canadian residents, U.S. citizens, diplomats and some other groups.
  • Germany and Denmark moved to close their borders. The Danish government is offering to pay up to 75% of private employees’ salaries to avoid layoffs.
  • The White House coronavirus task force issued new recommendations today, including that people avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
  • China, which is increasingly confident it is past the worst of its outbreak, is putting up new barriers to avoid importing cases.

Good news: A healthy U.S. volunteer received the first dose of an experimental coronavirus vaccine, a potential defense against the virus if it becomes a long-term threat.

3. Guyana: Oil rigs and ordered recounts

Waiting to vote, in Leonora, Guyana. Photo: Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

Guyana’s March 2 election came while the country is on the cusp of a transition from relative poverty to newfound wealth — and it was marred by severe irregularities that caused the U.S. and other countries to reject the result.

Why it matters: The coming days could determine whether the world’s next oil-rich country maintains democracy or slips back into strongman rule just as revenues start to flood in.

Driving the news: Results that showed incumbent President David Granger on course for victory were rejected by election observers, the courts and finally the international community.

  • Granger has agreed to a recount overseen by CARICOM, an organization of Caribbean states, but the process remains contentious and tensions are high in Guyana, which sits on the northern tip of South America.
  • It all comes down to one electoral region, where results with no apparent basis in reality seem to have tipped the election in Granger’s favor.
  • The response from Washington was sharp. “Democratic nations can’t ignore this blatant disregard for rule of law,” said Michael Kozak, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. “The world is watching. There is still time.”

What they’re saying: “We’re giving it one more shot. If this fails again, and they attempt to subvert the process, then it will be … even more apparent to all that the elections were rigged,” Bharrat Jagdeo, the opposition leader and a former president, told Axios in a phone interview today.

  • “The condemnation by the Western countries made all the difference,” Jagdeo says. He warns of corruption, repression and the erosion of Guyana’s young and fragile democracy if Granger clings to power.
  • “We will know we have another Venezuela next door to Venezuela should they succeed,” he continues. “People will flee this country, oil or no oil."
4. Africa: How the locust clouds grew

Crowded skies in Kenya. Photo: Fred Mutune/Xinhua via Getty

Vast locust swarms — one of which is three times the size of New York City — are tearing through crops in East Africa and leaving 20 million people at risk of a food crisis.

How it happened, per Nature:

  • ”The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), which is found in more than 65 of the world’s poorest countries, normally lives a solitary lifestyle in the deserts between West Africa and India.”
  • “It breeds after periods of rainfall … when rains are especially heavy, the population can build up rapidly.”
  • “The present outbreaks coincided with cyclones in 2018, and warm weather at the end of 2019, combined with unusually heavy rains.”
  • “Large swarms were detected at the start of 2020 in Ethiopia and Somalia."
  • "From here, they spread rapidly to countries including Kenya ... Uganda and Sudan. Swarms have also been forming in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and India.”

The bottom line: This problem can be contained through adequate monitoring and prevention. Now, the UN is seeking $138 million to limit the damage and support those affected.

  • That’s no large sum considering the stakes, but global attention and resources are flowing elsewhere.

Thanks for all the emails about stories you’d like to read. One reader mentioned Guyana, and another asked about this topic.

5. North America: Remaining in Mexico

Honduran migrants wait to plead their asylum cases in Tijuana. Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

While President Trump’s attention at present has been on keeping Europeans from landing at U.S. airports rather than migrants from crossing the southern border, the Supreme Court last week ruled that one of his signature immigration policies — “Remain in Mexico” — could continue.

The big picture: The policy has kept tens of thousands of asylum-seekers on Mexican soil to wait out their immigration court hearings. The program has been credited with helping lower the border crossing numbers from crisis levels, Axios’ Stef Kight writes.

On the ground: David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, visited the border last week and told Axios that while border crossings are down, the human suffering that drives them continues, and the backlog of people waiting for asylum hearings is growing.

  • “We’ve got a bigger backlog, we’ve got more people in limbo, and we’ve got people smugglers being able to charge more because people are increasingly desperate and the legal routes are being blocked.”

Miliband, who also met with top Mexican officials, said, "There's a very heavy dose of realism in Mexico about its relative power" — thus the willingness to comply with Trump's policy.

  • The current situation appears “manageable” for both governments, he said.

What to watch: Now is the time to deal with the backlog and implement policies that will prevent future crises, Miliband said.

  • But countries don’t typically address broad immigration or asylum reform without political incentive. And only crises seem to create that incentive, Stef writes.
6. What I'm reading: Life in Lesotho

Photo: Edwin Remsberg/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

I knew nothing about Lesotho until, a few weeks back, the prime minister was accused of killing his wife, allegedly to transfer the benefits of first-ladyship to his current wife, who has also been implicated in the murder.

That gap in knowledge was on my mind during a wander through my local bookstore, when I stumbled upon “Everything Lost is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho."

  • I’ve been reading it over the past several days, surrounding myself in an unfamiliar country from the confines of my increasingly familiar apartment.
  • Author Will McGrath moved to Lesotho — a tiny country surrounded on all sides by South Africa — and worked as a teacher while his wife studied the effects of AIDS (considerable in a country with one of the world’s highest infection rates).

The book is joyous, funny and rich in its descriptions of life in a place few Americans have thought of, let alone visited.

One vignette:

“Everyone holds hands here. Everyone touches. Men with men, women with women, tough teenage boys with tough teenage boys. It is not uncommon for a stranger to take your hand as he walks beside you, asking where you are going or what has brought you to Lesotho.”

That makes for jarring reading in the time of the coronavirus, but I'm glad to have something to read that takes me away from the current headlines.

7. Stories we're watching

Prayer and the virus. In Istanbul. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

  1. How Trump snapped out of coronavirus delusion mode
  2. Podcast: China's new role in the coronavirus world
  3. Netanyahu rival Gantz receives mandate to form government
  4. 3 Americans injured in rocket strike on Iraqi camp
  5. Pollution falls in Italy as business close
  6. What the U.S. needs to learn from Italy's crisis
  7. Apple is closing non-China stores


"Within a couple of days [the number of cases] is going to be down to close to zero."
— Trump, on March 5
"They think August, July, it could be longer than that."
— Trump today, on how long the "crisis" will last