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CWA # 452, 4 April 2021
The World This Week #113, Vol. 3, No. 14
The World This Week #113, Vol. 3, No. 14
Sukanya Bali and D Suba Chandran
COVID-19: The WHO releases report, but the question of origin remain unanswered
On 30 March, the much-expected report of the WHO on COVID-19 was released. According to the report, the transmission to humans through an intermediate host animal, is the most likely scenario; the spread through "cold-chain" food products is unlikely; and the role of the Hunan animal market remains unclear. As per the report, 28 per cent of confirmed cases had links with the market, 23 per cent with the other markets of Wuhan and 24 per cent had no sign of any market exposure. The report dismisses the lab leak theory, calling it an "extremely unlikely" situation.
Tedros Adhanom, WHO's Director-General, demanded further research for a "more robust conclusion." He also said he is ready to deploy more experts to do so. China's foreign ministry spokesperson said, "Beijing had fully demonstrated its openness, transparency and responsible attitude" for the research.
What is the background?
First, the WHO investigation and the report. After several months of delay, the team of 15 experts reached China. The team visited hospitals, animal markets, government laboratories, interviewed many locals and scientists to obtain data on the origin of the virus. The team was also taken to a museum and exhibition, showing CPC's success in the handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The investigation was strictly supervised by the Chinese government. The international experts were presented with the conclusions drawn by Chinese scientists and were denied direct access to raw data of early covid patients. The report was drafted by a 34-member team of international experts and Chinese scientists.
Second, the politicization, accusation and counter-accusation over the origin. Amid the pandemic, the US and Australia blamed China for the virus's outbreak and called for an international investigation. The former US President Donald Trump called it a Chinese Virus. The US also accused the WHO of being pro-China and pushed for withdrawing from the health agency. In response, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused the US military of bringing coronavirus to Wuhan. China imposed trade barriers on Australian goods after Australia pushed for an investigation.
Third, China's reluctance. For several months, China stalled the visit of international experts to Wuhan, where the initial outbreak. The experts faced visa delays, quarantine restrictions, and political stonewalling in China. In 2020 February and July, a small team of experts visited China but were forced to investigate from a distance.
What does it mean?
There was so much anticipation of the report; there was an expectation that the report would identify where the COVID-19 virus originated and how it spread. Unfortunately, the report is unable to provide a clear answer to the question over origin. After a year, around 2.8 million people have died, but several questions with the origin remain unanswered. The findings have raised more scepticism than clarity into the source of the virus. Second, China might resist a further investigation over the origin of the virus. The Biden administration may push for an extensive investigation and demand for more transparency into its data pool of early patients.
Brazil: The COVID turmoil spills over into a political one
On 30 March, the military leadership heading the three branches – Army, Navy and Airforce resigned following the Bolsonaro replacing the minister of Defence. During mid-March, Bolsonaro also replaced the health minister.
On 29 March, Bolsonaro also removed three ministers from the cabinet – foreign minister, defence minister and justice minister.
On 31 March, President Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer, observed the military coup in 1964. His Vice President, a former General, tweeted: "On this day, 57 years ago, the Brazilian people with the support of the armed forces stopped the international communist movement from sticking its tongs in Brazil." A small crowd gathered in Rio to observe the same.
What is the background?
First, the rising COVID-19 causalities and the public anger against the President. Brazil's casualty rates have been climbing steeply during the recent weeks and have already crossed 310,000. President Bolsonaro has been accused of not paying serious attention to the nature of the threat and taking adequate action to address the pandemic. He refused to impose lockdown or to insist on social distancing. As a result, there is a mounting casualty, which is yet to reach its peak. There is anger against the President – both at the national and provincial levels.
Second, the efforts by President Bolsonaro to shift the blame on the others. Brazil has witnessed four health ministers during the COVID period since January 2019. The present minister - Marcelo Cartaxo Lopes replaced Eduardo Pazuello in March 2021. Eduardo served only for seven months; he replaced Nelson Teich in September 2020. Nelson Teich replaced Luiz Mandetta; the latter served until March 2020, when Bolsonaro disapproved of his position on social distancing and COVID strategy. Bolsonarao also replaced Brazil's foreign minister, blaming him for failing to secure COVID vaccines for the country.
Third, a political development outside the COVID crisis in Brazil. The former President of Brazil Luiz Lula (2003-2010) is back now after the Supreme Court dismissed the corruption charges against him. This would mean Lula would be contesting in the forthcoming Presidential election in 2022 against Bolsonaro. Given the public anger, Bolsonaro should be deeply worried, and the changes at the top level in the government should be an attempt to deflect criticism against him.
What does it mean?
Bolsonaro's decision to replace the defence minister and the resignations of the three military chiefs should underline the efforts by the President to have a pliable military. Bolsonaro never shied away from applauding the role of the military and even eulogized it. As the opposition against him mounts, and with Lula's return to politics, he is no longer the strong man of Brazil.
The question is: Is Bolsonaro trying to get the military on his side and getting ready to engage it if the opposition mounts against him?
Also in the news...
By Avishka Ashok
East and Southeast Asia This Week
China: President Xi approves electoral amendments in Hong Kong
On 30 March, President Xi Jinping approved the Hong Kong electoral reform plan adopted at the 27th session of the Standing Committee of the 13th National People's Congress (NPC). The plan amends the election process of the Hong Kong chief executive and the formation of the Legislative Council; the latter will now consist of 40 seats from the Election Committee, 30 seats from functional constituencies and 20 seats will be directly elected. The amendment aims to resolve the loopholes in HKSAR's governance structures that prevents Beijing from having a stronger hold over the autonomous region.
South Korea: China supports Seoul on peace with North Korea
On 3 April, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi held a meeting with his South Korean counterpart and agreed to push for a "political" resolution to ensure lasting peace on the Korean peninsula. The talks between China and South Korea comes a week after North Korea tested two ballistic missiles, threatening the peace and stability in the region. South Korea is working towards enlisting the support of countries including China, Japan, the US and Russia to push for negotiations with Pyongyang, which have been stalled since 2019.
Japan: Talks about wartime issues
On 1 April, South Korean and Japanese officials held talks in Tokyo to discuss the prolonging issue of wartime forced physical and sexual labour, trade, and the disposal of the Fukushima nuclear power plant's contaminated water. After repeated calls by the US, the meeting took place to resolve bilateral issues and also improve the trilateral relations with the US to better deal with the regional issues.
North Korea: UN report reveals cyberattacks worth USD 300 million in 2020
On 31 March, the United Nations reported that in 2020, North Korea violated UNSC resolutions and stole over USD 300 million in the process to support its illegal development of weapons. The report also reveals that North Korea illegally imported vast amounts of oil, restricted by the UN resolutions. According to the report, North Korea's cyber-attacks were connected to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the country's military intelligence agency. The agency is also suspected of having stolen over USD two billion since 2015.
North Korea: Government association demands apology and compensation from Japan
On 2 April, the Association of Korean Victims of Forcible Drafting and Their Bereaved Families demanded an apology from Japan and compensation for its wartime atrocities. The organization also called for the withdrawal of Japan's hostile policies towards North Korea. The association claimed that over eight million Koreans were forced into slavery, and two million fell victim to the forced sexual labour. The organization stated, "We will never forget Japan's atrocities even after generations, and we will get back a thousand times the blood we shed."
Singapore: Malaysia compensates for cancelling High-Speed Rail project
On 30 March, Reuters reported that the Malaysian government had paid approximately USD 76.30 million settlement to Singapore for cancelling the Kuala Lampur- Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project. A joint statement reads: "This amount represents a full and final settlement in relation to the termination of the bilateral agreement."
Thailand: Pro-democracy protestors detained, as protests continue
On 1 April, Thailand prosecuted five pro-democracy activists for protesting and shouting slogans against the monarchy when the Queen and Prince passed the protestors in a limousine in 2020. The five individuals were released on bail after paying hefty fines. The act is punishable with 16-20 years of imprisonment. Nearly 81 activists have been charged with this crime since November 2020.
Myanmar: Military crackdown continues, as death toll mounts
On 3 April, the security forces fired at a crowd of anti-coup protestors in central Myanmar. The death toll crossed 550, and over 2700 people have been detained since February 2021. Despite the brutal violence and detention of civilians, people continue to stage protests across the country, demanding the military to step down, release NLD leaders and restore democracy. The military has been arresting civilians for talking to reporters and indiscriminately detaining and brutally killing civilians in nightly raids. Japan suspended all aid and development projects while Thailand rejected over 2000 Myanmarese refugees from entering the country.
South Asia This Week
Afghanistan: Istanbul meeting discusses the US withdrawal
On 30 March, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, held a meeting with Taliban leaders and discussed the US withdrawal from the country and the peace agreement. Meanwhile, members of the peace negotiating team of the Ghani government met up with officials from Turkey, Qatar, the US and the UN at Doha.
India: External Affairs minister discusses Afghan peace in Tajikistan
On 30 March, the external affairs minister of India visited Tajikistan for a three-day visit. During the official visit, S Jaishankar will attend the ninth ministerial conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) on Afghanistan. The conference emphasized strengthening regional and international consensus on the issue of peace in Afghanistan. On 29 March, Jaishankar held a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan and discussed the peace process and the success of the peace negotiations.
Pakistan: Cabinet rejects a proposal to import cotton and sugar from India
On 1 April, Pakistan's cabinet rejected the proposal to import cotton and sugar from India. The foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan would not be normalized until India reverses its decision to revoke the special status of Kashmir. The decision to reject the trade deal comes right after the Economic Coordination Committee of Pakistan decided to import the two commodities and to lift the two-year ban on imports from India.
Sri Lanka: Government bans Tamil Diaspora groups and individuals
On 29 March, Sri Lanka banned numerous groups representing the Tamil diaspora in the country. The government has banned the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), British Tamil Forum (BTF), Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC), Australian Tamil Congress (ATC), National Council of Canadian Tamil, Tamil Youth Organisation and the World Tamil Coordinating Committee. The government has also restricted several individuals based in the UK, Germany, Italy, Malaysia and other countries.
Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa This Week
Georgia: Political stalemate continues despite mediation efforts by European Union
On 30 March, the EU mediator reported that all parties in the political crisis in Georgia refused to accept or compromise and arrive at a solution to resolve the months-long political stalemate that has paralyzed the legislature. One-third of the legislative body remains vacant as the ruling party and opposition failed to arrive at a solution, engaging in heightened fighting with each other. The EU mediators said: "I'm sad to report that none of the political parties could agree to this solution in whole."
Iran: The US, EU to meet in Vienna to discuss the JCPOA
On 2 April, the European Union announced that all the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) members would be meeting in person in Vienna. The US has also confirmed its participation and said it was open to talking with Iran directly on the nuclear deal. The EU has said that the US and Iran would have different contacts in Vienna as Iran has refused to interact with the US directly. An EU diplomat said, "Iran and the US will be in the same town, but not the same room."
Iraq: Prime Minister visits Saudi Arabia for the first time
On 31 March, the Prime Minister of Iraq pledged support to Saudi Arabia and promised that Iraq would not be used as a launchpad for attacks on Saudi Arabia. The visit aimed to increase the proximity between the two countries and improve economic and security ties. While talking about the alleged attacks on the royal palace in Riyadh from Iraqi territory, the PM refuted the claims and insisted on the attacks not being from Iraq.
Jordan: Former crown prince accused of plotting a coup
On 4 April, the government arrested the former crown prince Hamzeh, Sharif Hasan, a member of the royal family, Bassem Awadullah, a former senior official and 20 other high ranking officials for allegedly plotting a coup against the kingdom. Hamzeh denying any wrongdoing and involvement in the conspiracy claimed, "I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, the corruption and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse." The military denied keeping Hamzeh under house arrest but a video submitted to the BBC by his lawyer claims restrictions to his movements and communication with people.
Syria: UN raised USD 6.4 billion but fell short of USD 10 billion goal
On 30 March, the United Nations General Secretary said, "More than 13 million people need humanitarian assistance to survive this year. That's over 20 per cent more than last year, and the majority of the population is now facing hunger." The UN has raised USD 6.4 billion in humanitarian aid but is currently falling short of its USD 10 billion goal as international economies suffer from a financial slowdown due to the pandemic. The EU conducted the fifth annual conference and donated USD 4.2 billion for the displaced within the country and USD 5.8 for refugees and host nations in the region.
Africa: Centre for Disease Control and Prevention warns against vaccine delay
On 1 April, the director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, referring to Serum Institute of India's decision to delay 90 million doses of vaccines meant for COVAX said: "the hold will definitely impact our ability to continuously vaccinate people." He cautioned the world of the catastrophic impact that the hold may have on the coronavirus's spread in the African continent. India has paused the export of vaccines as it deals with a spike in infections and increased local demand for the vaccination.
Mozambique: African Union urges urgent action after a terrorist attack
On 1 April, the African Union chairman condemned the attacks on Palma. The international organization has called for urgent action after the terrorist attack killed dozens and displaced over eight thousand in the northern coastal town of Palma in Mozambique. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) also held an emergency meeting to discuss the violent attacks and promised a helpful response to ensure the integrity and sovereignty of the region. However, the President of Mozambique downplayed the attacks, saying they were not the biggest attack.
Europe and the Americas This Week
Russia: Tensions increase between Moscow and Kiev
On 1 April, the Conflict Intelligence Team, Russia, and other media outlets reported an increased Russian military presence near Crimea and near the border between Russia and eastern Ukraine. Approximately 4000 troops have been deployed in the region.
Russia: Sputnik pulls out of Britain
On 2 April, a Russian news agency announced that the Russian government-sponsored news agency, Sputnik, will close all its operations in Scotland five years after its initial opening. The news agency also stated that it would be moving its Britain-based activities to the US and Russia and ordered by its Russian Parent organization. The statement made by Sputnik read: "The international edition in English will now be handled by the Sputnik offices in Washington and Moscow."
Brazil: Government rejects Bharat Biotech vaccines
On 1 April, Brazil's health regulators rejected Bharat Biotech's certification of good manufacturing practices after inspecting the factory in Hyderabad, India. Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech, will be used for emergencies in Brazil, but the rejection of the application for the certification will affect its ability to supply the vaccine to the country. During the inspection, issues relating to the quality of the vaccines and the action plan were raised and were found to be insufficient.
About the authors
Sukanya Bali is a Project Associate, Avishka Ashok is a research assistant, and D Suba Chandran is a Dean and Professor at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS).
V S Ramamurthy and Dinesh K Srivastava
Abigail Miriam Fernandez