Apr 2, 2020

Axios World

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1 big thing: A month that changed the world

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It’s already hard to envision the world we lived in one month ago.

Flashback: A WHO report from March 1 shows a total of 7,169 coronavirus cases outside of China, with just seven countries having recorded even a single fatality and the total death toll under 3,000, including China.

  • The only Europeans under quarantine were residents of 10 towns in northern Italy.
  • Spectators packed into sports stadiums, friends gathered at bars, nearly everyone went to work.
  • Stock markets were reeling as forecasts of the coming storm grew darker, but life in Europe and North America went on more or less as normal.
  • The March 2 edition of this newsletter focused on the Afghan peace deal, Israel’s election and Syria’s refugee crisis. The coronavirus didn’t feature, beyond our regularly updated graphic.

Flash forward: The global case count has now topped 1 million.

  • Spain, which hadn’t recorded a single death as of March 1, saw 4,249 over the past five days alone. Italy averages roughly as many deaths each hour as all of Europe had recorded a month ago.
  • The U.S. has three times as many cases as the entire world did on March 1, and more than 30 times the caseload outside of China at that time. Unemployment claims last week were 33 times the rate seen one month ago.
  • Countries that haven’t implemented some form of lockdown are the exception. India’s 1.4 billion people have been ordered inside. Reports or images of even small gatherings incite anger in European cities.
  • 9 in 10 children worldwide are out of school, according to UNESCO.

April is going to be far worse.

  • While daily death tolls appear to be leveling off in cities like Milan and Madrid, others like New York and London are still climbing rapidly toward terrifying peaks.
  • There are surely countries and regions that have yet to see significant outbreaks but will by May 1.

What to watch: Citizens of hard-hit countries have been offered little clarity as to when they'll be able to return to something approximating the lives they led one month ago.

  • Denmark offers a hopeful case. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen says mitigation efforts there have been effective, and the country can now consider reopening in stages after Easter (April 12).
  • The borders will remain closed to avoid importing cases, and senior citizens will be asked to continue to self-isolate, but schools and workplaces could reopen under staggered hours, to limit crowds on public transport.
  • But even places like Taiwan and Hong Kong that contained initial outbreaks remain on alert, using high-tech monitoring to enforce quarantines. Almost nowhere have schools that were closed been reopened.
  • The first wave has yet to crest in the U.S. and Europe, meanwhile, but experts are already warning of the waves to come.

The bottom line: Our way of life changed in fundamental ways in less than a month. The return to "normal" will likely take far longer.

Go deeper: Coronavirus is being used to suppress press freedoms globally

2. The virus could hit the developing world hardest

Disinfecting in Dakar, Senegal. Photo: John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images

By my calculation, 88% of new coronavirus cases confirmed on Wednesday came within the OECD club of wealthy nations, which together account for just 17% of the world's population.

The big picture: While that data is based on uneven and inadequate testing, it's nonetheless the case that the virus is currently spreading most widely in countries that should be among the best equipped to handle it. There's little reason to believe that will remain the case.

What they're saying:

  • “In three to six weeks, Europe and America will continue in the throes of this — but there is no doubt the center will move to places like Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro and Monrovia,” Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told the Washington Post. “We need to be very worried.”
  • There's deep concern about a coming shortage of ICU beds across the U.S. But on a per-capita basis, America has 330 times as many as Uganda, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group and his brother Richard, an infectious disease doctor, note in Foreign Affairs.
  • "[T]he countries least able to impose physical distancing and perform contact tracing also tend to have the most overstretched health-care systems and the most precarious economies," they write.

The big picture: In many poor countries that are now imposing lockdowns, millions live in cramped conditions without regular access to running water — and many simply can't afford to stay home. The effectiveness of those policies is thus uncertain, and the economic pain is severe.

  • "If economies crash, silent killers such as diarrhea, malnutrition and infant mortality may sweep through populations," David Pilling notes in the FT.

The bottom line: This virus has brought unprecedented challenges to the Western world. But in the developing world, the consequences could be deeper still and far more difficult to recover from.

Go deeper: Debt crisis awaits in emerging markets

3. The global vaccine push

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

I’ve written regularly in this newsletter about how the policy responses to this global crisis have been every-country-for-itself and — in the case of the U.S. and China — tinged with geopolitics.

The flipside: The scientific work underway to understand the virus and develop a vaccine has been globalized on an unprecedented scale.

Zoom in: Trump has boasted that in the race toward a vaccine, “America will get it done!”

  • But the NY Times reports that a University of Pittsburgh lab on the cutting edge of vaccine research is collaborating with a research institute in Paris and a drug company in Austria. That group gets funding from an international organization based in Norway and is in talks about vaccine development with a major Indian manufacturer.
  • Chinese researchers have contributed much of the coronavirus research now available to other scientists, the Times notes. And a team at Mass General hospital in Boston is testing possible treatments in conjunction with colleagues in Xi’an, China.

The good news: The global scientific community has perhaps never been so singularly devoted to one issue, and borders have not been a major barrier to that work.

But, but, but: Nationalism and geopolitics could still come into play in the eventual distribution of a vaccine, Axios’ Alison Snyder notes.

  • There is a concern that the first countries to develop or obtain one could prioritize their own populations, and the vaccine would only reach some countries significantly later.
4. State of the outbreak: By the numbers
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Two times as many people have likely died of the coronavirus in Italy's hardest-hit cities than are reflected in the official death toll (currently 13,915 ), WSJ reports.

  • That's because so many people have died without ever being tested, including hundreds of people in nursing homes.

1.18 million people per year die of tuberculosis, making it the world's deadliest infectious disease — until now.

50,000+ people are tested every day in Germany, more than three times the rates in Spain, France and the U.K., per the FT.

  • At least in part because people with less severe cases are getting tests, Germany’s death rate from those confirmed to have COVID-19 is just 1%, compared to 11% in Italy and 4% in China.

38% of people in India use the internet at least occasionally, well behind the rates in countries like Kenya (48%), Nigeria (54%), the Philippines (70%) and Turkey (85%), according to a 2019 Pew survey.

  • Working remotely isn't an option for most during the country's three-week lockdown.

368 million children around the world are currently missing out on school meals, according to the World Food Program.

5. Bibi's smoking gun, presented by Hallmark

Netanyahu chairs a weekly Cabinet meeting. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared with his Cabinet a video he claimed was evidence of Iran concealing coronavirus deaths by dropping bodies in garbage dumps, two Cabinet ministers tell Axios contributor Barak Ravid.

Behind the scenes: Several hours later, Netanyahu's office realized the video had nothing to do with Iran, or with the coronavirus crisis. It was a clip from “Pandemic," a 2007 Hallmark Channel mini-series.

The backdrop: Iran has been Netanyahu's top foreign policy focus for 25 years. Israeli intelligence believes there have been up to five times more coronavirus deaths there than the 3,036 that have been officially acknowledged. Netanyahu thought he'd seen evidence of a cover-up.

  • Netanyahu brought up the video during a conference call with Cabinet ministers on Monday.
  • Many of them asked to watch it, and Netanyahu asked his national security adviser to send it to the entire Cabinet.
  • The video had been shared by Iranians on social media over the last week, and it was shared with Netanyahu without any confirmation of its authenticity.
6. Meanwhile, in space

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As space becomes increasingly key for militaries, nations are finding new ways to protect their military and research satellites, raising concerns that they might develop ways of destroying enemy satellites and making some parts of space unusable, Miriam Kramer reports in her Axios Space newsletter.

Details: Last year, France established its own offensive and defensive posture in space, as it looks to counter any threats to its own space-based assets.

  • Japan, which has long been involved in scientific endeavors in space, has also recently started to develop the ability to track satellites in orbit to protect its own military interests.
  • A Russian satellite has reportedly spied on a U.S. spy satellite from orbit. Russia is also believed to be jamming position, navigation and timing signals in Crimea and Syria.
  • The U.S. has performed its own tests of new military technology in orbit, including the release of small satellites from the secret, uncrewed X-37b space plane.

The big picture: Space-faring nations have shied away from using destructive means to respond to threats to their satellites, but that could change in the future.

  • Experts are particularly worried that the destruction of a satellite could create large amounts of space junk and make wide swaths of certain orbits unusable.
  • "Right now, there appears to be a norm against using kinetic capabilities, but I fear that could change, particularly in a future high-stakes conflict between a couple of space powers," Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.

What to watch: Demonstrating the ability to destroy a satellite may now become a signal to other nations that a country has major capabilities in space.

7. Stories we're watching

Buddhist monks in Bangkok wear face shields as they collect alms. Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

  1. Making sense of UN climate conference coronavirus delay
  2. Pakistani court overturns Daniel Pearl murderer's conviction
  3. Oil surges on Trump claim of Saudi-Russia deal
  4. Tracking epidemics from space
  5. China's recovery looks too good to be true
  6. China's medical diplomacy empowers euroskeptic leaders
  7. The days the Earth stood still


“Avoid wearing house clothes. ... Put on makeup and dress neatly.”
— Malaysia’s Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development in a since-withdrawn infographic on how women should live under lockdown. Women were also advised not to nag their husbands.