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Quick Take: Cautious COVID optimism, TikTok & China sanctions

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Happy Monday, we are in August, summer, should be taking it a little easier. Coronavirus not taking the stress levels off but hopefully giving people the excuse, if you're not traveling so much, be close with your families, your loved ones and all that. Look, this is not a philosophical conversation, this is a talk about what's happening in the world, a little Quick Take for you.

First of all, you know, I'm getting a little bit more optimistic about the news in the United States right now. Yes, honestly, I am. In part because the caseload is flattening across the country and it's reducing in some of the core states that have seen the greatest explosion in this continuation of the first wave. Yes, the deaths are going up and they should continue to for a couple of weeks because it is a lagging indicator in the United States. But the fact that deaths are going up does not say anything about what's coming in the next few weeks. That tells you what's happened in the last couple of weeks.


What is likely coming is that even in the red states where governors were most opposing wearing masks in a mandatory way and shutting down the economy, they are seeing that they have explosive case transmission and they're changing their behavior. And mask wearing and social distancing in the United States is less about whether you're Republican or Democrat, it's more about is the disease near you and do you feel threatened by it? And as we see it spreading into rural areas and into red states, we're also seeing mask wearing and social distancing going up in those places.

It's not true everywhere and even some governments that are particularly retrograde, Alabama looks really bad, for example, in that regard. But generally, across the country, you're seeing a response to all of those measures. You're also seeing that improved treatment, the fact that high-flow oxygen actually works better than ventilators in some cases, the fact that plasma treatment is becoming more used and more and more widely understood. I mean, all of these things, plus increased testing numbers that the president keeps talking about, is making it easier for the United States to respond effectively to this outbreak. And that means even with much larger caseload that we know about, you're not getting as many hospitalizations, they aren't lasting as long, not as many people are dying. All of that implies to me that where we are going to be in two months' time doesn't feel as bad as where we are right now. Even though the total numbers of deaths, of course, are going up and the best estimates I've seen so far, about 230,000 by Election Day.

There are more explosive cases that are happening in Japan, in France, in Spain, in the United Kingdom, and in Australia, but let's keep in mind that that is from a much, much lower base and the government response, also learning, is becoming quicker and more effective. And the popular response, better educated around the stuff, also effective. So, the impact that's going to have should be smaller than what we saw in the first wave. So, I mean, even without working vaccines, the learning that's going on around this disease, both the learning in terms of science and also learning in terms of governments and people should actually make us get better at handling it. And that makes me more optimistic. When we were talking in March and April and the explosions, we saw first in Italy and the massive mistakes made around hospitals there, which got overwhelmed. In the United States, in the New York City metro area, the massive mistakes that were made around assisted living facilities and bringing people that had cases there and transmission exploded. We're not doing that anymore. So, we're learning in a lot of different ways. The doctors are learning. Governments are learning at the national and local level, and the people are learning. As all of that happens, we're going to get better very quickly responding to this virus. And so even though you're going to see lots and lots of people still get sick, you're not going to see as many serious hospitalizations and not many will die.

The one thing that bothered me the most since we last chatted, are these studies that show that over 50% of people that have gotten the disease, even if they were asymptomatic, have some lasting heart damage because the heart is working a lot harder to respond to the body's needs when the virus comes. It's only one study but the numbers are significant, it's well over a thousand people in it, and it was well reputed, the scientists involved. So, the longer term implications of all of the people that are getting this virus, many of whom don't know it, in terms of whether or not our life expectancies will be of the quality and the length that we want, that actually does really sort of bum me out. And I'm hoping that we learn a lot more about that in the near future.

So, you know, I mean, you think about the fact that, you know, we go into our cars and we've got thousands of sensors and we know exactly when we need brake fluid, we know exactly when we need gas, we know exactly, you know, what kind of maintenance we need, real time, and we wouldn't buy a car otherwise. And you look at our bodies and we have nowhere near that amount of tracking and tracing. And frankly, it's not even because the technology isn't there, it's just because we haven't felt comfortable with it and we also don't really want companies or governments have access to that data. But in this environment where suddenly you are bringing this new disease into a meaningful piece of the global population, and unchecked, it hits everyone, right? You look at India, Mumbai, and some 50% of people tested in the biggest slum, over a million people, very dense population, already have had the disease. Over half. So, herd immunity actually of some form is proven to come there. I mean, the numbers are just, within a year, the numbers are going to be astonishing to think about. And, you know, pretty much everyone is going to have people close to them that are exposed to it. We are going to want to know, long-term what that means for our health, long-term what that means for our ability to live the lives that we had been, you know, personally, emotionally and financially planning for? So, that is a worry.

US-China, the most recent things. First, the TikTok ban, so many people in the media saying this is because Trump is angry at the kids who embarrassed him in Tulsa, he's angry at this comedian that makes all of these really funny TikToks of him speaking. No. I mean, I'm sure he is angry about it, but this has nothing to do with that. It's almost certain that Microsoft or another company will end up picking up TikTok and all those people can still make fun of Trump if they want to on whatever that new app is. No, this is going after China. And let's keep in mind that this is a China where if you want to use Amazon, you want to use Facebook, you want to use Google, tough. You're stuck. You can't do it. You know why? Because they have their own and they won't let the American companies in. And China is the largest data market in the world. So, if they refuse to allow the biggest American firms, the biggest in the world, to participate there, even if the Chinese weren't stealing data for their governmental purposes, even if they had rule of law on intellectual property, why would you let them operate those apps in your market? You would want to have an agreement where you have reciprocity, where if they want to operate the US and you get to operate in China. Until that happens, I'm not very sympathetic to the people saying the US shouldn't be doing anything. And by the way, most American allies are on board with the US on that front.

Also, interesting to see, probably the most significant sanctions so far by the US against China, it's against the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. It is the most important central government sort of corporate entity in Xinjiang, which is the north-west interior part of China, where the Uighurs, the ethnic minority Muslim, have had over a million forced into camps, there has been forced sterilizations, forced cultural integration. It is a horrible, horrible story. And the US is significantly upping the impact in terms of sanctions. It's not clear because there aren't a lot of companies that do direct business in the West with that Xinjiang Production Construction Corp, but there are an enormous amount of firms that do trade, that have inputs that originally come from that company. And that produces much of China's cotton, for example, lots of other things as well. So, a lot of people could be watching very carefully to see what it means and just how broadly those US sanctions are going to apply, whether it's direct or indirect engagement with that entity. If it's indirect, then this is going to be a very significant hit to a lot of Chinese companies and Western companies that really matter, they will have to change business practices and the Chinese will respond and escalate.

So, that one is worth watching. TikTok is done, someone else will buy it. And that is your Quick Take.

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