May 28, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back and happy Thursday, World readers.

  • The weekend ahead may feel a bit more like an actual weekend here in Washington, based on the latest guidance. I hope it's lovely wherever you are and whatever you do with it.
  • Tonight's edition begins at sea level but will take us up into the Himalayas and then to space. It's 1,720 words (6.5 minutes).

Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here.

1 big thing: The eye of the COVID-19 storm shifts

The epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic has moved from China to Europe to the United States and now to Latin America.

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Why it matters: Up to now, the pandemic has struck hardest in relatively affluent countries. But it's now spreading fastest in countries where it will be even harder to track, treat and contain.

Driving the news: Brazil is now recording more deaths each day than any other country, surpassing the U.S. for the first time over the past three days.

  • Outbreaks are also growing fast in Mexico, Peru and Chile, with those countries now recording more new cases than any country in Europe, excluding Russia. The World Health Organization is also worried about rising caseloads in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
  • As cases surge, poorly equipped health care systems throughout the region will struggle to cope. In Mexico, at least 11,000 health care workers have themselves become sick, per the NYT.
  • A University of Washington study forecasts a sharp rise in fatalities in the region by early August — including 125,000 in Brazil, up from 24,512 now, per Reuters.
  • President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly dismissed the threat from the virus, is battling with local officials to reopen the economy even as the situation grows increasingly grave.

Zoom out: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the outbreak far more seriously, implementing one of the world's strictest lockdowns, but his government is now loosening restrictions not because cases are falling (they're not) but because the economy is buckling.

  • “In India, the curve hasn’t turned the corner. You have deferred the peak," says Bhramar Mukherjee, who leads a University of Michigan project that projects India will have 1 million cases by July 15 if it pursues a "cautious" reopening, per the Washington Post.
  • Overall case counts have increased by 4.5x in India, 3.7x in Pakistan and 2.4x in Indonesia — the world's second-, fifth- and fourth-most populous countries, respectively — since May 1, per WHO data.

The other sides: Countries across East Asia, where the virus arrived earlier, now have fewer active cases than they did a week ago, according to Albright Stonebridge Group. That's also the case in most of Europe.

  • But in sub-Saharan Africa, as in Latin America, the numbers climbed almost everywhere over the past week.
  • They spiked dramatically in countries like Cameroon (+198%), South Africa (+172%) and Bangladesh (+41%).
2. Some countries are hardly testing

Many of these countries are starting from low baselines, largely because they'd conducted so few tests.

Data: IRC; Chart: Axios Visuals
  • Nigeria, for example, has tested just one person for every 230 tested in the U.S. (adjusted for population), according to data compiled by the International Rescue Committee.
  • "We've got countries where there are hardly any tests going on at all," David Miliband, the IRC's CEO, told Axios in an interview, "and we've got countries... where we're getting enough testing to be very worried."

The lack of tests in many poorer countries can be attributed to political dysfunction, poor infrastructure, and shortages of testing kits and lab capacity.

  • In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Miliband notes, samples have to be transported to labs in Kinshasa. That's no easy task in a country where very few cities are connected to the capital by road.
  • In Tanzania, the government appears to be quite literally choosing ignorance. It has been a month since the country recorded a new case — or a single test.
  • Russia's new approach, announced Wednesday, is more subtle. They'll keep conducting tests, but only add those showing COVID-19 symptoms to the tallies of cases and deaths.
Bonus: State of the outbreak
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis makes it sound pretty simple.

  • Asked this week how his country had avoided a major COVID-19 outbreak, he said, "It was obvious to me after talking to our public health experts that we would be moving into some sort of lockdown. I chose to do it earlier rather than later."
  • Mitsotakis also noted that he’d taken a back seat to the country’s chief epidemiologist, who held nightly press conferences and issued guidance that was closely followed by a population that had previously shown little trust in government or expertise.

The good news: "Social trust is very important. We had lost it in Greece for many years, and this pandemic was an opportunity out of the blue to recover it,” Mitsotakis said.

The bad news: "One risk I see is to be a victim of our own success,” Mitsotakis said, noting that people were growing more “complacent.”

  • Another risk is his decision to reopen for tourism (which accounts for 20% of the Greek economy) beginning July 1.
  • Tourists from countries with well-contained outbreaks will be invited first. Mitsotakis indicated Americans would not be on the initial list.

In other news: The English Premier League plans to resume play on June 17. As a Tottenham fan, I think it’s only fair that they reset the standings first.

Catch up on all the latest headlines.

3. U.S. foreign policy roundup

XI (C) shows Duterte the way, on a visit to Beijing. Photo: Ng Han Guan-Pool/Getty Images

1. China’s rubber-stamp parliament voted today to move ahead with a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong that would criminalize sedition, foreign influence and secession.

  • Authorities in Hong Kong quashed protests Wednesday over a separate bill to ban displays of disrespect for China’s national anthem, which is often booed at soccer matches. 300 people were arrested.
  • Hong Kong’s future as a global financial hub is in the balance after the Trump administration declared that the city — which currently enjoys special trading status — is no longer autonomous from mainland China.
  • President Trump could lay out next steps as soon as tomorrow.

2. The U.S. is ending waivers that had allowed foreign companies to work at Iran's civilian nuclear facilities, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Wednesday.

  • This will eliminate most elements of U.S. sanctions relief still in place two years after President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
  • Pompeo said "continued nuclear escalation" made the move necessary, but critics warn it will encourage further Iranian enrichment. Go deeper.

3. When the Philippines needed help to fight its coronavirus outbreak, it turned not to its American allies, but to China, Axios fellow Camille Elemia reports.

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte thanked Beijing heartily for sending medical equipment and personnel. The U.S. also sent aid, but Duterte hardly acknowledged it.
  • Why it matters: The Philippines is America’s oldest military ally in Asia, but it's drifting toward America's superpower rival.
  • Worthy of your time.
4. Asia: Giants square off in the Himalayas

Pangong Lake — a beautiful place for a brawl. Photo: RNMitra via Getty Images

India today rejected President Trump's offer to mediate what he called a "raging" border dispute with China, saying diplomatic and military channels to China had been engaged to resolve the Himalayan standoff bilaterally.

Where things stand: It's very difficult to tell, given the paucity of information trickling down from the mountains. But reports of Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), followed by troop reinforcements from both sides, are cause for concern.

  • China had objected to Indian road-building near the disputed border, which the countries fought a war over in 1962.
  • That may be why its troops ventured across the LAC, reportedly digging in with tents and even destroying some Indian guard posts and bridges, per the Economist.
  • Indian and Chinese troops brawled near Pangong Lake (elevation: 14,000 ft.) earlier this month, with some reportedly sent to the hospital but, thankfully, no shots fired.
  • This is far from the first standoff along the border, but it appears to be the most serious since at least 2017.

The big picture: Both countries are in the midst of nationalistic moments as they attempt to define themselves as global powers, but neither government has yet unleashed the full force of nationalistic fervor against the other.

  • That should leave them room to climb down, as long as any future clashes are also waged with fists, and not guns.
5. SpaceX launch could be bad news for Russia

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

SpaceX's first attempt at launching astronauts from American soil, now set for Saturday after a weather delay, will stress the decades-long relationship between the U.S. and Russia in space, Axios' Alison Snyder and Miriam Kramer write.

Why it matters: As the U.S. regains the ability to launch people with its own rockets, the future of Russia's already struggling civil space program — and how the U.S. will collaborate with it — is unclear.

Where it stands: The U.S. and Russia are locked in a state of mutual dependence. NASA needs Russian rockets, and Russia's Roscosmos needs U.S. money.

  • For nine years, Russian rockets have been the only ride to orbit for U.S. astronauts.
  • A seat on the Soyuz rocket, which experts say hasn't evolved much since the 1960s, cost NASA $80 million on average in recent years.

What's happening: If SpaceX and Boeing can deliver astronauts to space, the U.S. plans to stop purchasing flights from Russia.

  • "It is a nightmare scenario for the Russian space agency,” one industry expert tells Axios. "We’re building a replacement to every rocket and spacecraft they provide."
  • Russia could turn to existing partners — the Europeans, Canadians and Japanese, for example — as customers. It could also turn to tourists and other governments looking to get into space (the UAE, for one). But those are small markets.

The big question: "Are we going to go back to the Great Powers having individual space programs and everyone picks teams, or is there still an opportunity for everyone to collaborate on one big program?" asks Brian Weeden of Secure World Foundation.

Go deeper

6. What I'm watching: Buying your way to the top

Not your average Jho. Low (R) with Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz at the Grammys in 2014. Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

1. Tim Bell began as an adman, helped sell Margaret Thatcher to British voters three times, and then went global — polishing the reputations of some of the world's most disreputable figures, for the right price.

  • A scandal in South Africa brought it all crumbling down in 2017.
  • As the wealthy Gupta family was essentially buying up Jacob Zuma's fantastically corrupt government, the Guptas hired Bell's PR firm, Bell Pottinger, to execute a high-stakes head fake.
  • Bell Pottinger fanned outrage over "White Monopoly Capital," playing on racial tensions to distract attention from Zuma's dealings with the Guptas. When the campaign was exposed, the legendary firm folded.
  • South African journalists Diana Neille and Richard Poplak tell that story, featuring extended interviews with the late Lord Bell, in their documentary "Influence." Trailer here.

2. Jho Low talked and bribed (allegedly) his way into control of billions in Malaysian government money, with the help of Goldman Sachs (allegedly), then spent his way into Hollywood and alongside celebrities as he splashed millions around at clubs and casinos.

  • Low denies this, or at least the illegal bits. He's now a fugitive, reportedly in China, but the 1MDB scandal continues to loom over Goldman and Malaysian politics.
  • I’m late to the party on this one, but “Billion Dollar Whale” from WSJ’s Tom Wright and Bradley Hope is a mind-bending read that sheds light on the shady circles where millions change hands — often legally.
7. Stories we're watching

A man in Lulworth, U.K., lives out the dreams of many ocean-loving quarantiners. Photo: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

  1. Netanyahu goes on trial
  2. European leaders urge Israel against West Bank annexations
  3. House passes Uighur rights bill
  4. U.S.-China trade tensions escalating again
  5. U.S. seeks to revive rare earth industry dominated by China
  6. Putin presses forward with Victory Day parade
  7. Russia seeks 18-year sentence for American Paul Whelan

Quoted:

“They can bring along a photo or a love letter. I realize these are very intimate things, but the decision to let in the partner ultimately rests on the judgment of the individual police officer.”
— A Danish police chief on a since-adapted plan to enforce rules allowing people from neighboring countries to visit partners in Denmark if they had been together for at least six months
Dave Lawler

Follow the World channel in the Axios app: Available on iOS or Android.