The World this Week

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The World this Week
The Spike in Spain, Unstoppable in Italy, Two trillion package in the US, new Crisis in Afghanistan and the UN Secretary General's call to halt conflicts

  GP Team

The World This Week #60, 28 March 2020, Vol 2, No 13

Harini Madhusudan, Sourina Bej, Sneha Tadkal, Sukanya Bali, Jenice Goveas and Rashmi Ramesh


4000 and counting: Spain observes a spike in death rates

What happened?
After Italy and China, Spain registered a death toll of 4,089 with 769 deaths on 27 March 2020, Spain has the fourth-highest number of infected cases. In Madrid, the worst affected region, an ice-rink was converted into a morgue and the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, the home ground of Real Madrid, would be used for the storage of medical supplies. As of 28 March 2020, the number of cases is at 56,188 in Spain, and the percentage of rising is at 18 per cent, a relatively slower rate compared to the previous week. 

The slowing rate of cases could indicate the beginning of a stabilization phase, but the challenges that the outbreak brought up globally, is reflected in Spain too. There is an alarming need for space to bury the dead, to treat the affected; a shortage of protective equipment. There is a global war to get hold of ventilators, face masks, and quick test kits; countries are struggling to get supplies. Spain is known to have ordered 432 million euros worth of goods from China. 

What is the background?
Spain declared a national emergency on 14 March 2020. Spain observed a skyrocketing number of cases in the two weeks after. One of the primary reasons given by the media in Spain is the public health service’s depleted resources for dealing with the volume of the outbreak. Compared to eight per cent in Italy, Spain has 16.5 per cent of its health workers affected by the outbreak. Health workers are battling with the government demanding for protective equipment, something they had to fight for even during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. 

Two important factors have driven the rise in numbers in Spain. First, hospitals and medical services in Spain are known to be run by different autonomous regions, thus have underlying inequalities in terms of equipment and services. Second, with a large and vulnerable elderly population, Spanish homes and retirement homes do not have medical resources for the numbers that are showing up. 

What does it mean?
Europe has failed in early detection and meeting the consequent demand for medical supplies. Spain has extended the emergency to 12 April 2020, while reflecting the need for more robust lockdown measures. Since the pandemic is yet to peak, it seems like the medical industry is not in a place to deal with it alone. The death rate in Spain is at 8 per cent, which is beyond the global average. 


Unstoppable in Italy: The Virus records 900 deaths in a day, as the pandemic accelerates in Europe

What happened? 
On 27 March, Italy recorded 919 new coronavirus deaths in a day which is the highest daily figure in the outbreak, surpassing China. The deaths recorded on 27 March have brought the total number of deaths from the pandemic to 9,134 in the country. The authorities have warned of an extension in the restrictions beyond 3 April as 5,959 new cases are registered nationwide bringing the total number of affected to 86,500. As the number keeps increasing in Italy, 100,00 infected cases are reported every day in Europe. The impact of the pandemic has reached its peak as higher government officials test positive for the virus. This includes the Prime Minister of UK, Boris Johnson, Prince Charles of the British Royal Family followed by Michel Barnier, the chief EU Brexit negotiator and UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock. In the UK, the total number of deaths is 759, with 14,543 confirmed cases. As of 27 March, France reported 299 coronavirus deaths over the past 24 hours and the total death toll stands at 1,995. 

What is the background? 
Five weeks after the virus took root in Italy, the country's recorded cases rose to nearly 86,500, which is more than the United States, or China. The northern region of Lombardy is the hardest hit in the country and saw a sharp increase in deaths from Covid-19. This followed a decline on 26 March that raised hopes that the curve might be flattening in the trajectory of the outbreak.  However, the progress of containment is slow, and the number of deaths is staggering. The country has been suffering from a flu-like disease before the coronavirus infections started spreading in the country, making it difficult for an already overloaded hospital to detect early infections or the government to impose an early lockdown. Since the outbreak, 46 doctors have died and nearly 6,500 health workers infected. In all likelihood, the containment measures will be extended. The lockdown has been crushing the tourism-dependent Italian economy and the increase in deaths in Italy will be a caution for the other European countries who are behind in the progression of the virus and the lockdown. 
What does it mean? 
First, the increasing number of deaths bring to light the spotty response by Italy since the beginning. In a matter of weeks (from February 21 to March 27), Italy went from the reporting its first official Covid-19 case to a government decree that essentially prohibited all movements of people within the few territories to complete lockdown. The government has been reluctant in listening to the experts and the tall figures as the country was already experiencing flu-like symptoms. They never anticipated the cost of the coronavirus on the already ailing population. In addition, the people, in general, have been figuring out how to act in dire situations where there is no easy solution.

Second, the lesson that can be drawn from the Italian experience is the perils of partial solutions. The Italian government dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic by issuing a series of decrees that gradually became stricter and expanded from the affected provinces to the entire country. This strategy particularly backfired as it was clearly inconsistent with the rapid spread of the virus. Thus, in the end, Italy ended up mitigating or following the health disaster rather than preventing it. 

Third, the experience in Italy also brings out the fact that similar approaches of social distancing and retail closure will not translate to uniform containment of the virus spread. This was visible in the contrasting cases of Lombardy and Veneto, the two neighbouring regions and the epicentre of the outbreak. While Lombardy recorded 5000 deaths, Veneto recorded 287 (increasing) deaths; this was due to the decentralised nature of the Italian health care system and the differences in policy response adopted by these provinces. 

Last, Italy provides an important background to what could be foreseen in Europe in the coming weeks. With an already delayed effort at COVID-19 containment, the policymakers will be struggling to keep up with the spreading pandemic. The pandemic has taught Europe the truth about meeting the human security issues and also the dependency on Asia with regards to crucial supply chains (apart from virus) that binds the continents together. For example, Europe should take this moment to realise its excessive dependence on China for pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and high tech medical equipment in times of crisis.  


US: $2.2 trillion to stimulate the economy

What happened?
On March 27, the US Congress has passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) approving an unprecedented $2.2 trillion aid package to help overcome the economic fallout inflicted by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The rescue package is roughly 9 per cent of the GDP and is the most extensive economic relief measure ever undertaken in US history.

The package consists of five major measures:  cash payments of up to $1200 for almost all Americans; an expansion of the unemployment-insurance system that would raise benefits and enable gig workers as well as regular employees to receive them; a $360 billion assistance program for small businesses; a $500 billion bailout fund for big businesses; plus hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency funding for states, hospitals, and other medical providers.

The Senate session was held under special rules to limit the spread of the disease among members. The necessary emergency relief would help to sustain and stimulate an ailing economy until the virus is contained.

What is the background?
After weeks of delay and a series of missteps along with lost opportunities to contain the virus early, the US now leads the globe with known cases. On March 27, the number of coronavirus cases in the United States exceeded 100,000, and it has already surpassed China's total of COVID-19 cases with more than 82,000 reported infections. There are emerging hot spots of cases of coronavirus in the middle of America including smaller communities like Greenville, Mississippi, and Pine Bluff, Arkansas and large cities like New Orleans, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago. The areas around Cleveland, St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, have also seen spikes. As the testing ramped up, the number of known cases rose rapidly in recent days. The Senate, which approved the bill was adjourned until April 20. At least five members of Congress have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than two dozen have self-quarantined to limit its spread.

After being accused of playing down the outbreak in its early stages, President Trump has ramped up relief measures and has been holding daily briefings on the emergency. He has also announced the signing of the Defense Production Act, allowing the private industry to help meet orders for products necessary for national security. Initially, he had dismissed the role of civil business, suggesting it would be analogous to “nationalizing” businesses.

The CARES Act is the third aid package from Congress to address the threat of COVID-19 in the US. President Trump signed the bill into law a day after unemployment skyrocketed and a record of 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week.

As countries across the world announce their relief packages and declare nationwide total lockdowns, President Trump is determined to lift coronavirus lockdown and ease restrictions by the Easter holiday. However, public-health experts remain worried over this deadline which is too early to a still mushrooming outbreak.
What does it mean?
First, the rare bipartisan action indicates the seriousness of the lawmakers in containing the virus. Despite the risk of contracting coronavirus, hundreds of lawmakers from both parties returned to Washington to cast their votes. Allowing the private industries to manufacture critical medical equipment signifies the extent of measures being carried out.

Second, according to IMF, the world has entered into a recession as bad as or worse than in 2009, and the US economy has also slowed down to a level which it did not experience during the Great Depression. The announced rescue package, an essential move is going to sustain and stimulate the economy of the US during this pandemic.

Third, though the Senate approved the bill with a unanimous vote, the bipartisan spirit was limited to the White House. Neither Pelosi nor Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer was invited to Trump’s all-Republican signing ceremony for the bill. Also, the Senate had to evade the procedural challenge put forth by the Republican Representative Thomas Massie, who had sought to force a formal, recorded vote.

Afghanistan: The travails of a dialogue between the Taliban and the government

What happened?
On 26 March, the Afghan government announced a team of 21 members, to negotiate with the Taliban over the prisoner swap, according to the peace deal signed last month in Doha, between the US and Taliban. The team headed by Masoom Stanekzai, former chief of the National Directorate of Security will include politicians, former officials, representatives of civil society and five women members. 

On 25 March, an attack over Karte Parwan Gurudwara in Kabul, which was claimed by ISIS on the Aamaq media arm, led to the death of 25 people.  Later that day, Afghanistan National Security Council, said, the Afghan government will meet Taliban members later this month to discuss the release of prisoners. 

On 23 March, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, met Taliban officials in Qatar, after he visited Afghanistan. The failed attempt to bring truce between the rival leaders, President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah announced a $1 billion cut in the US aid to Afghanistan. On 22 March, the Afghan government officials and Taliban leaders had their first “virtual meeting” over prisoners’ release. 

What is the background?
The political discourse in Afghanistan features unrest between the two rival leaders, President Ashraf Ghani, and Abdullah Abdullah, over their claims to the presidency after the elections in September. The difference grew deeper after Ghani was declared the winner in February. The political feud over the prisoner swap between the government and the Taliban led to a delay in the functioning of the US- Taliban deal signed in Doha in February. 

Recently, Mike Pompeo visited Kabul on 23 March to mediate between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, to work on the comprehensive peace deal. Post his visit; the US announced a cut of $1 billion aid. Pompeo further said, the US will prepare for another cut in 2021 and will also review “all the programs and projects to identify additional reduction and reconsider our pledge to future donor conference for Afghanistan”. 

On 25 March, the attack on 400-year-old Gurudwara in Kabul ended after a six-hour siege and left dozens of people dead. Tariq Arian, Interior Ministry spokesman, said that all the gunmen were killed after several hours-long- operation by the Afghan forces. The Afghan Sikh population, a minority of around 700 people, had been neglected in the country. ISIS claimed the attack; however, government sources claim that the attack was conducted by Haqqani Network, in retaliation to violence against Muslims in India. 

Later the same day, an announcement by National Security Council stated that the two sides would meet face-to-face, to discuss an initial release of prisoners. Taliban spokesman said the meeting would decide on the release of prisoners which is expected to begin by the end of March and 15 Taliban leaders will soon be travelling to Kabul to verify a list of the prisoners before the release. 

Afghan government further announced a team of 21 members to begin talks with the Taliban. The spokesman of Abdullah Abdullah said, ‘he could neither confirm nor deny whether Abdullah supported the team’. Abdullah Abdullah’s approval of the negotiating team is important, considering his influence in the North and the West of the country.  The year began with a lot of worries, chaos and socio-political outbreaks in the region. The spread of the Pandemic across borders, made many refugees return back to Afghanistan from Iran. From March 8 to March 21 more than 115000 returned from Iran according to the International Organization for Migration. Herat province, which shares borders with Iran, has turned as the new hotbed of the virus. The total count of infected has crossed 100 in the country. 

What does it mean?
First, the visit of Mike Pompeo helped in making progress in the US-Taliban deal. Second, the Afghan government included women in the team of 21 members, for the upcoming meet. This indicates steps towards women empowerment in Afghanistan. However, it is unclear how the Taliban will react to the inclusion of women as representative at the negotiation table.

Third, though the US-Taliban deal was signed after the 18 months of negotiations to end America’s longest war, there are no signs of peace and the minorities are likely to remain under fear perpetually as they continue to remain neglected and underrepresented.   Fourth, despite the anti-CAA protests raged in India for the last three months, the citizenship amendment law will help non-Muslims, like persecuted Afghan Sikhs, to flee violence and gain citizenship in India. The attack on the Sikh minority community of Afghanistan might give a positive picture to the Indian government’s narrative on the CAA.    


The UN Secretary General’s call to halt the conflicts

What happened?
The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an immediate cease-fire and “lock-down” on global conflicts to focus attention on the coronavirus pandemic so that we can “focus together on the true fight of our lives.”. He termed COVID-19 “a common enemy” for mankind irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, faction or faith. He particularly appealed to those fighting in Yemen to end hostilities and ramp up efforts to counter a potential outbreak of the pandemic. Sending across a strong message “to silence guns, stop artillery, end airstrikes and create corridors” the UN Secretary-General appealed for focussing attention on life-saving aid and opening new windows for diplomacy.

What is the background?
A number of global conflicts have been stretching for many years. The Syrian conflict since ten years, the Yemen conflict since five years, the internal Libyan rivalry since one year, the eastern Ukrainian conflict since six years added to episodes of unrest in Somalia, South Sudan, Congo and other African countries are some examples of political turmoil world over. Active extremist groups including the Islamic State, the al-Qaida and others continue to carry on attacks around the world particularly in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Conflicts invariably target women, children, disabled, marginalized, displaced making them most vulnerable. It is this same section of society that is again facing the “highest risk of suffering devastating losses from COVID-19. Guterres warned that “mistrust and animosity” could lead to “devastating consequences” amidst the pandemic. He called war a sickness that is affecting the fight against “the disease”. Stopping fights everywhere is the necessity of our human family, now more than ever.

What does it mean?
War paralyses public health systems and often targets health professionals. Guterres also appealed to the leaders of G-20 countries for greater coordination to suppress COVID-19, calling for “massive support” to prevent it from spreading “like wildfire”. He said developing countries would need “a huge package” so that they can respond to economic and social consequences of the pandemic and keep households, businesses, and societies afloat. Major industrial countries and organizations like the World Bank and IMF would need to step in and support developing countries by at least 10% of the GDP of those countries. The IMF responded positively assuring that it was ready to deploy one trillion dollars towards lending resources to nations in need through a strong coordinated response with the World Bank and other international groups.

The United Nations has also planned to launch a humanitarian appeal of two billion dollars to deal with COVID-19 in aid of the refugees and the displaced who are “doubly vulnerable”. The U.N. plans to deploy envoys in conflict areas to don the task of negotiating with warring parties so that his global appeal “leads to concrete action”. Pressing the pause button for wars and conflicts can help in creating suitable conditions to effectively deal with COVID-19. The good news, however, is that a few warring parties especially the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has agreed for a ceasefire to prevent a coronavirus outbreak. This gives hope for de-escalation of the conflicts making the world optimistic towards a political, comprehensive and sustainable resolution to the bloody civil conflict. It could enable practical steps towards alleviating the deep human suffering caused due to one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises. Another optimistic development is Libya’s positive response to the appeal for a humanitarian pause to conflicts for better tackling of COVID-19. The ‘fury of the virus’ has now become mankind’s common enemy and confronting it together forgetting ‘the folly of war’ is the need of the hour.

Also, during this week…

Brazil’s response to the virus
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro expressed his anger at the actions of the governors in Brazilian states, who had called for a lockdown to combat COVID-19. Justifying his stance by stating economic reasons, he emphasized that Brazil will not stop fearing a “little flu”. On the other hand, the criminal gangs of Rio de Janeiro’s slums ‘imposed’ a lockdown in the wake of the virus spreading rapidly. This indicates the parallel powerhouses and the level of organized crime operating in the country.

As Brazil reported around 3500 cases, the finance ministry announced a plan with 700 billion reais to compensate for the losses and fight the virus. The justice ministry also barred the entry of non-resident foreigners into Brazil.

The US surpasses China in COVID-19 cases
The United States reported over one lakh cases of COVID-19, surpassing China by over 20,000 cases. New York, California, Washington DC, New Jersey and Florida are among the worst affected. The cases in the US may be very high due to four reasons- first, the country delayed its initial response to the virus. Second, stay-at-home orders are not in place in all states. Third, the US might be testing rigorously than other countries, and therefore a greater number of cases. Fourth, the strong democratic establishment might have allowed the US to put across correct statistics. There is scepticism over the data received from non-democratic and semi-democratic countries, as there is a high possibility of tampering with statistics.

China halts international flights
On 26 March, China suspended international flights in an attempt to avoid the second wave of infections from the virus. This means that foreigners with valid visas and resident permits cannot enter China. It also makes it difficult for Chinese citizens abroad, to return. The major announcement came in the light of increasing imported COVID-19 cases, now standing at 500. The step also hinders the export of medical equipment from China to other countries in need of it.

Olympics 2020 stands postponed
The need to postpone Tokyo Olympics 2020 was seen as early as January when Japan saw increasing cases of COVID-19. There was also severe criticism about the delay in taking a firm decision, while sporting activities across the world had come to a halt. However, after some uncertainty, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponed the event to the summer of 2021.

The US charges Nicolás Maduro over narco-terrorism
The United States’ Attorney General William Barr announced the charges on Venezuelan President Maduro and other senior officials over narco-terrorism or drug trafficking. They are being charged of flooding the US with drugs and using them as a weapon against its citizens. A $15million reward has been announced for clues leading to the arrest of the President.
Maduro is often criticized for his authoritarian and corrupt regime. This incident further plummets the relationship between the US and Venezuela.

Turkey indicts 18 Saudi Arabians over Khashoggi’s murder
Turkey indicted 18 Saudi Arabian citizens over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. They include a forensic doctor, a Saudi intelligence official and an associate of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The latter two were charged with instigating the murder and others of carrying out the operation.


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