The World This Week

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The World This Week
The rise of Delta variant, and the fall of Afghan State

  GP Team

The World This Week #132, Vol. 3, No. 33

Harini Madhusudan and Harsimran Singh Sondhi 

The Global Spread of Delta Variant: Mutation Uncertainties, and the Vaccination Drives 
What happened?
On 13 August, China reported a delta variant-related resurgence in the country, with more than 1,200 new cases in 48 cities in 18 provinces. On 12 August, Japan and the US reported more than 18,000 and 138,000 new infections. The delta variant is contributing to the rapid rise in infections around the world and has spread to about 130 countries. The Delta and Lambda variants are pushing a resurgence of cases even in countries that have vaccinated large numbers. This increase raises a concerning alarm for the regions with low vaccination rates and strained healthcare infrastructures. 

According to the WHO, the Delta variant is the most transmissible variant of the virus. In early August 2021, the world recorded a total of 200 million cases. While the first 100 million took a year to reach, the next 100 million were reported in about six months.

What is the background?
First, the global spread and the mutation. Scientists have revealed that the new mutations would continue over the subsequent few cycles of the Sars-CoV-2. Existing variants include - Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Lambda; they have emerged from the virus' adaptability to the local environments and have developed independently. The Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants have been reported from 178, 123, 75 and 130 countries, respectively. Of these four, the Delta is known to be 50 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha variant. 

Second, the efficiency of vaccination drives, distribution imbalance and public reluctance. On 14 August 2021, according to Bloomberg's vaccine tracker, 4.64 billion doses have been administered across the globe. With a vaccination rate of 38,345,129 doses per day, estimates say that it would take another six months to cover 75 per cent of the population. Countries with higher incomes are getting vaccinations at a 20 times faster rate than those with the lowest incomes, highlighting an imbalance in the distribution. Also, there has been a public reluctance. While some regions have observed protests against lockdowns, others have seen wastage of vaccines due to fewer takers. States have incentivized vaccination and pushing vaccination campaigns amongst the anti-vaxxers and deniers to multiple beliefs.  

Third, early lifting of restrictions. In recent months, countries have eased lockdown restrictions for two reasons - to deal with the economic recovery and a declining rate of virus transmission/ death. After its success with controlling the spread, China was one of the first countries to ease restrictions. Sweden and South Korea did not impose lockdown restrictions until it was unbearable. However, the delta variant has shaken the system; and imposing a heavy burden on the health sector. 

What does it mean?
With herd immunity far, vaccination drives and boosters remain the only immediate solution. Second, more data is expected in the coming months on the efficiency rates of vaccinations with the emerging variants. Regions that have reported a high vaccination rate would remain an important observation ground to map the responses between vaccines and the new variants. Studies have emerged which show a correlation between the vaccinations and the spread of variants, which say that the Delta variant has spread through vaccinated people. Finally, the challenge for the governments is to juggle economic recovery, public demands, and the safety of the collective society.

Afghanistan: The international failure fastens the downfall
What happened?
On 11 August, the 'extended' Troika Plus meeting on discussions of Afghan settlement between Russia, China, the United States and Pakistan was held in Doha, Qatar. According to the Qatari Foreign Ministry, the meeting took place behind closed doors. The meeting's agenda was to examine the present situation in Kabul and curb rampant Taliban offences.

On 14 August, the Taliban took control of the strategic Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. On 13 August, Herat and Ghazni fell. On 12 August, Herat fell; so did Kandahar. On 14 August, President Ashraf Ghani spoke for the first time and said that the remobilization of the Afghan forces was of top priority. Also, on 14 August, President Biden President Biden announced that he would send 5000 American troops to evacuate the US and allied personnel. According to a Wall Street Journal report, these new steps by Biden "don't represent a major course correction in his decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan and largely consist of adjustments to moves already underway as he seeks to disengage from America's longest war."

On 13 August, NATO allies met in the North Atlantic Council to discuss the present situation in Afghanistan. The alliance condemned the Taliban's growing attacks "on Afghan civilians" and said: "We continue to assess the developments on the ground, and we are in constant contact with the Afghan authorities and the rest of the international community." NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said: "Our aim remains to support the Afghan government and security forces. We maintain our diplomatic presence in Kabul and the security of our personnel is paramount." 

What is the background?
First, the finality of the US withdrawal. The US has set 31 August 2021 as the deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan completely and has decided to end their longest ongoing war. President Biden said earlier: "The Afghans must decide their own future, and it is an unwinnable war." Despite media pressure and statements by senior military leaders who have fought in Afghanistan, Biden's decision to withdraw seems to be final. This means Afghanistan would have to handle the fighting on its own. While the American troops have slowly reduced their role in the fighting, they have been providing crucial air, cyber and intelligence support to the Afghan forces.

Second, the weakness of the Afghan Security Forces. The pace at which the provinces and the capitals have fallen over the last two weeks highlight the capabilities and willingness to fight the Taliban. From the available reports, it appears, it was more of a walkover for the Taliban than a takeover following a tough fight.

Third, the international response to the Taliban offensive. Despite the Troika meeting, statements from the UN, and a NATO meeting in Brussels, there has been no action taken so far. The statement by the UN Secretary-General that Afghanistan is "spinning out of control" is not backed by any action at the UN Security Council.

What does it mean?
Afghanistan is on the verge of being taken over by the Taliban. Though there is a discussion on "power-sharing", the Taliban would want otherwise. Rather, they would press for complete control. Why would they want to share power, if they can take control?

Also, in the news …
By Sukanya Bali and Avishka Ashok

East and Southeast Asia This Week 
China: Hubei declares "red alert" to address the floods
On 13 August, the Hubei province in the mid-east of China declared a "red alert" in five cities after rain left 21 dead. Xinhua reported, damage to 2700 houses and shops, transportation and communication channels. According to China News Services, 774 reservoirs in Hubei has exceeded flood warning level. The province management bureau cited a loss of around 108 million yuan from the extreme weather conditions.

China: Beijing refuses to share data of COVID-19 to WHO 
On 12 August, the WHO urged China to share raw data, of the earliest COVID-19 cases, which was rejected by Beijing. The WHO announced the formation of a new group to trace the origin and end politicization in the investigation process. The WHO spokesperson said: "We should work altogether. You, me, everyone wants to know the origin of the worst pandemic in a century." 

China: Two Canadian citizens sentenced
On 10 August, a Chinese court sentenced a Canadian citizen, to 11 years in prison on espionage charges. On 9 August, another Canadian's appeal against the death sentence was rejected. 

China: Lithuania allows Taiwan office; Beijing recalls its Ambassador
On 11 August, Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open an office in Vilnius, under its own name. In response, Beijing recalled its ambassador. Lithuania's foreign ministry stated: "in line with the One-China policy, Lithuania is determined to pursue mutually beneficial ties with Taiwan like many other countries in the European Union and the rest of the world do." Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons added, "Lithuania's decision to allow the Taiwan authorities to open a 'representative office' under the name of 'Taiwan' has seriously infringed upon China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and severely contravened the one-China principle."

China: Ambassador to the US meets the high-level officials for the first time
On 13 August, China's ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang met the US Deputy Secretary, Wendy Sherman. Xinhua reported: "The two sides agreed that Sino-US bilateral relations are very important, and it is necessary to resolve issues through dialogue and communication, manage differences and contradictions, and improve bilateral relations." The report added, "Qin Gang emphasized that the Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations."

China: Five-day joint military drills with Russia concluded
On 13 August, Beijing and Moscow concluded a large-scale joint military drill in China's north-central Ningxia region. The Sibu/Cooperation 2021 was a five-day drill involving more than 10,000 ground troops and air forces. Xinhua reported the drill "reflects the new height of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and of the strategic mutual trust, pragmatic exchanges and coordination between the two countries."

Japan: JMA issues high-risk alert in Hiroshima
On 13 August, Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) issued a level-five risk alert in the western prefecture of Hiroshima. Hundreds of residents were evacuated to avoid floods and the risk of landslides. JMA official said: "There is a possibility that a grave disaster will occur" in the upcoming days. JMA also added, in Hiroshima "we have issued a special heavy rain warning. This is a level of heavy rain that we have never experienced before."

North Korea: Ambassador to Moscow expresses interest to strengthen cooperation with Russia  
On 12 August, Pyongyang's Ambassador Sin Hong-chol to Russia expressed interest in strengthening relations with Moscow. In an interview with TASS, a news agency he said: "We will also boost cooperation between North Korea and Russia with the view to counter the US, a common threat." He also said North Korea intends to strengthen its ties with Russia, to counter the growing US-South Korea relations in the Korean peninsula. 

Myanmar: Beijing funds USD 6 million for projects; foreign ministry denies responsibility for the two arrests
On 11 August, Myanmar's foreign ministry said, Beijing would transfer USD 6 million to fund 21 development projects as a sign of cooperation under the junta. The funds will be transferred within the Mekong-Lancang cooperation framework which includes animal vaccines, culture, agriculture, science, tourism, and disaster prevention.  On 9 August, the Myanmar foreign ministry denied the responsibility for the arrest of two Myanmar citizens. 

Thailand: Protesters march to the PM's residence
On 13 August, Thai protestors clashed with the police during their march towards the Prime Minister's residence. These rallies were against the government's failure to handle Covid-19 outbreaks and their impact on the economy. Bangkok police chief said, "The police aim is to maintain peace" he also added, "Those joining protests are at risk of infection and also breaching other laws." Authorities press charges against 300 cases involved in recent demonstrations.  

South Asia This Week 
India: QUAD members hold talks on Indo-Pacific
On 12 August, senior officials of QUAD members met virtually. Japanese foreign ministry released a statement: "The officials concurred on further advancing practical cooperation among the four countries on quality infrastructure, maritime security, counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief toward the achievement of a free Indo-Pacific....Officials reaffirmed its strong support for ASEAN unity and centrality as well as ASEAN led regional architecture."

Pakistan: Imran Khan says the US seeks Islamabad only to clear Afghanistan mess 
On 12 August, Pakistan Prime Minister accused the US saying: "Pakistan is just considered only to be useful in the context of somehow settling this a mess which has been left behind after 20 years of trying to find a military solution when there was no one...I think that the Americans have decided that India is their strategic partner now, and I think that's why there's a different way of treating Pakistan now." Earlier this week, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood also said, that "Islamabad was being made a "scapegoat" for the mistakes of those in Afghanistan."

Afghanistan: International community condemns the Taliban expansion 
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: "We encourage The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to settle political differences, increase the representation of all stakeholders and engage with the Taliban from a united perspective." The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: "Afghanistan is spinning out of control. Every day, the conflict is taking a bigger toll on civilians, especially women and children." He also highlighted, more than 1000 people have been killed and injured in the recent attacks

Central Asia, Middle East and Africa This Week
Azerbaijan: Russia accuses armed forces of truce violation 
On 13 August, the Russian military accused Azerbaijan of violating the truce with Armenia for the first time after it deployed its troops in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. On 12 August, the Russian Defence Ministry informed the media that the Russian peacekeepers noted a truce violation on the previous day. The Russian military website announced the breach and said: "The Azerbaijani armed forces carried out two strikes using attack-type quadcopters on the position of the Nagorno-Karabakh armed formations. There were no casualties." The incident also marked the first time when Russia blamed one country in the conflict. 
Iran: The US imposes new sanctions amidst stalled talks 
On 13 August, the US imposed new sanctions on Omani businessmen after he was alleged to be involved in an oil network that illegally smuggled oil to the Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGV-QF). The sanctions have been placed on Mahmood Rashid Amur Al Habsi at a time when the talks with Iran on the nuclear deal hit a roadblock after the appointment of President Ibrahim Raisi. The IRGC-QF is accused of using petroleum sales to fund its illegal activities. The US Treasury Department said: "As part of his oversight of shipping operations, Al Habsi has tampered with the automated identification systems that are onboard vessels, forged shipping documents, and paid bribes, circumventing restrictions related to Iran."
Israel: Foreign Minister visits Morocco 
On 12 August, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Morocco and inaugurated its embassy office in the country after it normalized relations in 2020. On 11 August, Lapid also met with the Moroccan Foreign Minister and signed an air service agreement and agreed to cooperate on culture, sports and youth. The two countries also signed an MoU on establishing a political consultation medium to fit the motive of face-to-face diplomacy. The US also congratulated the efforts of the two countries in working towards the normalization of bilateral relations. 
Qatar: Ambassador to Saudi Arabia appointed
On 11 August, the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad AL Thani reappointed the ambassador to Saudi Arabia after a four-year break in diplomatic relations. The Emir appointed Bandar Mohamed Abdullah al-Attiyah as the ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Qatar's relations with Saudi Arabia are improving at a faster pace than the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt. These countries had together imposed a blockade on Qatar for having close ties with Iran. As of today, Bahrain remains to be the only country to have continued with the trade and travel restrictions on Qatar. 
Algeria: Government fails to control wildfires 
On 12 August, the General Directorate of the Civil Protection (DGPC) reported that there were approximately over 100 active fires in Algeria, out of which 38 were in Tizi Ouzou. On 9 August, Algeria reported the flare-up of the first fire, after which over 69 people have lost their lives. As the people continue to evacuate from the affected regions, they have raised alarm over the lack of support and the unpreparedness of the government in handling the situation. While the government dispatches helicopters and firefighters, the people were caught unaware and were not equipped to deal with the catastrophe. 
Zambia: President accuses rival party of elections fraud
On 14 August, Zambian President Edgar Lungu accused the Parliamentary and Presidential election of being unfair and "not free." He said that his party, the Patriotic Front Party, would contemplate its next steps after 31 out of the 156 constituencies voted for Hakainde Hichilema, a Zambian businessman who previously criticized the President's handling of the economy and the pandemic. Lungu has accused the rival party of fraud as he claims that his constituencies showcased a large voters turnout but still seem to have lost the election. Hichilema called the Lungu's attempts a "desperate final act of an outgoing administration."

Europe and The Americas This Week
Russia: British journalist expelled after the UK refuses visas to Russian journalists
On 14 August, Sarah Rainford, a BBC journalist from the UK was expelled from Russia and ordered never to return. The Russian government spokesperson explained that she was being deported after the UK refused to give visas to its journalists. The BBC also urged Russia to reconsider its decision and called the move "an assault on media freedom." 

Italy: Highest temperature recorded in European History
On 11 August, Syracuse city recorded the highest temperature of 48.8 degrees Celsius. The last record of such high temperature was registered in Athens in 1977 when the temperature hit 48 degrees Celsius. The temperatures result from the extreme heatwave that has affected the European continent and caused multiple wildfires in Greece, Italy, Algeria, Turkey, Macedonia and Siberia. Since 15 June, Italy has witnessed over 44,442 wildfires which marks a hyper increase from the last year's record of 26,158. Climate scientists have cautioned the government regarding the unprecedented rise in temperatures. 
The UK: Over half a million EU citizens await a bid to stay
On 12 August, the BBC reported that over half a million EU citizens were waiting for the UK to approve their applications to let them stay in the UK. The Home Office data reported that over 483,200 applications were pending in July after a sudden surge in applications before the June deadline. 
Cuba: New sanctions by the US
On 13 August, the US State Department announced that it would place additional sanctions on two Cuban officials and a military unit until the government stops the crackdown on the protestors. The Director of the Treasury Department said: "Today's action shines a spotlight on additional perpetrators responsible for suppressing the Cuban people's calls for freedom and respect for human rights." The Foreign Minister of Cuba rejected the sanctions: "Such measures reflect double standards of a government used to manipulation and lies to maintain the blockade against #Cuba."

Haiti: Judge investigating the killing of former President steps down; Presidential elections postponed
On 13 August, Justice Mathieu Chanlatte dropped the judicial investigation into the assassination of the former Haitian President Jovenel Moise. In a letter to the Port-au-Prince Court he said: "We are removing ourselves from the said case for personal reasons and ordering its return to the dean of this court." The primary issue of concern is the safety of the judges which has been compromised during the pandemic. On 12 August, the Haitian authorities announced that the Presidential elections will be postponed to 7 November. 

Venezuela: Opposition begins negotiation with the government in Mexico City
On 13 August, the Venezuelan government met the opposition in Mexico City to address the acute political and economic crisis which has caused large scale migration from Venezuela. Along with Mexico, Netherlands, Russia, Bolivia, Turkey, and Norway will also join the conference. The Venezuelan President blamed the US and European sanctions for its economic crisis and demanded immediate relief. The parties have agreed to a road map to help the success of the dialogue. The US State Department spokesperson responded to the demand and said: "We are willing to review sanctions policies on the basis of significant progress in the negotiation. But that is what we need to see: significant progress."

The US: Senate passes the infrastructure bill
On 10 August, the Senate passed the infrastructure plan worth USD one trillion with 69 votes for the plan while 30 voted against it. The new infrastructure bill has provisions for new funding worth USD 550 billion which will be used for transportation, broadband and utilities. The leader of the Senate Majority said: "Today, the Senate takes a decade's overdue step to revitalize America's infrastructure and give our workers, our businesses, our economy, the tools to succeed in the 21st century." 

Canada: Reopening of the southern border with the US
On 9 August, Canada opened its southern border to the US for people who have completed two doses of their vaccination. However, despite the opening of the border, the border authorities reported that there have been very few crossovers in the past week. Canada has reopened its tourist venues to restart the tourism industry, but most of the visitors have been Canadians themselves. The reopening of the border also ran into a few obstacles due to the labour dispute between the federal government and the Border Services Agency of Canada. 

About the Authors
Harini Madhusudan is a PhD Scholar in the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Harsimran Singh Sondhi is a research intern at NIAS. Sukanya Bali and Avishka Ashok are Research Associates at NIAS.

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