Coronavirus Politics Daily: A different Ramadan, Chile issues immunity IDs, Africa lacks ventilators

Coronavirus Politics Daily: A different Ramadan, Chile issues immunity IDs, Africa lacks ventilators

Ramadan in the time of COVID-19: Many of the world's 1.8 billion Muslims begin marking the holy month of Ramadan on Thursday, but it will be a commemoration with little precedent as communities around the world have to rethink new ways of incorporating some of Islam's central traditions. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, and it's customary to gather in mosques and hold communal meals to break the fast. But given quarantine orders in countries with some of the largest Muslim populations, including Pakistan, India, and Malaysia, ensuring compliance with social distancing measures while allowing citizens to observe the holiest month on Islam's calendar, will prove challenging for many governments. In Pakistan, for example, some influential Islamic authorities have instructed Muslims to defy government orders that limit the number of people who can attend mosque services and to gather for prayers. Some Arab countries are leaning heavily on clerics to enforce guidelines. Meanwhile, in Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei told Iranians to avoid public gatherings during Ramadan and to pray at home – hoping to prevent the chaos seen last month when some Iranian hardliners, bolstered by Shiite clerics, violently stormed shrines that were closed because of the pandemic. In Egypt, meanwhile, actors and production crews have flouted social distancing guidelines in order to produce the country's famed Ramadan soap operas, which are heavily anticipated and widely watched every year.


Africa's ventilator shortage: As countries vie to get their hands on an insufficient global supply of ventilators during the coronavirus pandemic, the entire continent of Africa has a critical shortage of the life-saving machinery. The World Health Organization says there are just 2,000 ventilators between 41 African countries, prompting some doctors in the region to say they feel "defenseless" against the spreading disease. With a population of over 206 million, for example, Nigeria has some 100 ventilators, while South Sudan has just four. Meanwhile, Somalia's health ministry says they don't have access to any machines at all. But even those countries that do have some ventilators stockpiled say that they don't have enough trained medical professionals who know how to operate them. While African countries have so far avoided the worst of the pandemic, the UN warned last week that as the number of COVID-19 cases in the region continues to rise, as many as 3.3 million people could die of the disease unless stricter measures are taken to prevent its spread.

Chile issues first immunity IDs: If we loosen quarantine restrictions, how will we know who is actually safe to work or socialize with? The Chileans have one answer: card everyone. As of yesterday, the government has begun issuing the world's first COVID-19 "immunity" IDs to people who can prove, via testing, that they have recovered from the disease. Chile, which has so far done more testing than any other Latin American country, is still moving toward an expected mid-May peak of infections, but the card scheme is one way that the government wants to balance public health and economic considerations. Critics point out that we still don't know for sure whether people who recover from COVID-19 are immune, and if so for how long. From a political perspective, we wonder how many other countries would be able to impose a system like this, with all the political considerations and privacy concerns that a national, centralized immunity ID systems like this would entail. Would you, reader, be in favor of something like this?

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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