Coronavirus Politics Daily: G7 name game, Rohingya at risk, and Sweden's gamble

What's in a name? Nothing on dealing with coronavirus: The foreign ministers of the G7 group of the world's leading industrialized democracies failed this week to issue a joint statement on fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Why? Evidently because US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted on calling the virus the "Wuhan Virus" rather than the internationally recognized "COVID-19" or "coronavirus." The White House, which has been particularly at odds with Beijing over coronavirus, is keen to link the outbreak explicitly to China, where it was first detected, and to fight what Pompeo described as Chinese "disinformation." The virus, for its part, doesn't care what you call it, but it's happy to see seven of the world's leading powers not doing much leading at all.


Fears for Rohingya refugees: The town of Cox's Bazar, in south-eastern Bangladesh, abuts the world's largest refugee camp, home to almost 1 million Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in neighboring Myanmar in 2017. Now, a resident of Cox's Bazar has tested positive for COVID-19, sending aid workers into a frenzy as they prepare for what they say is the "inevitable" spread of the virus amongst one of the most vulnerable populations in the world. Many believe the coronavirus is already sweeping the refugee camp, but in the absence of testing it's impossible to be certain. Many in the camps don't have access to running water and only around 67 percent of people have access to soap, making it all but impossible to slow the spread of the disease through constant hand-washing. Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, is also nearing monsoon season, which regularly brings its own host of challenges to the camps, including regular spikes in infectious disease.

A Scandinavian gamble: "We cannot take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society." That wasn't President Trump, or Jair Bolsonaro, or Putin, or any of the other world leaders who've been criticized for underestimating the threat of the coronavirus. It was the head of public health in Sweden. Although the country's vast social benefits system is in theory better positioned to cushion the economic blow of a massive lockdown, the government has taken a lighter approach: universities are closed and gatherings of more than 500 people are banned, but schools remain open, there are no explicit work from home orders, ski resorts are still humming, and you can get served in restaurants (but not at the bar). The government is confident that the country's health system is capable of absorbing a surge in cases if they come, but critics say the policy making has been too opaque and is a huge gamble. Fingers crossed that it's a winning one.


Amid the current need to continually focus on the COVID-19 crisis, it is understandably hard to address other important issues. But, on March 31st, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed landmark facial recognition legislation that the state legislature passed on March 12, less than three weeks, but seemingly an era, ago. Nonetheless, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the importance of this step. This legislation represents a significant breakthrough – the first time a state or nation has passed a new law devoted exclusively to putting guardrails in place for the use of facial recognition technology.

For more on Washington's privacy legislation, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Over the past decade or so, the European Union has weathered the global financial crisis, a migrant crisis, and the rise of populist nationalism. Sure, it's taken its fair share of bumps and bruises along the way, but the idea of a largely borderless Europe united by common democratic values has survived more or less intact.

Then came the coronavirus. The global pandemic, in which Europe is now one of the two main epicentres, is a still-spiralling nightmare that could make those previous crises look benign by comparison. Here are a few different ways that COVID-19 is severely testing the 27-member bloc:

The economic crisis: Lockdowns intended to stop the virus' spread have brought economic activity to a screeching halt, and national governments are going to need to spend a lot of money to offset the impact. But some EU members can borrow those funds more easily than others. Huge debt loads and deficits in southern European countries like Italy and Spain, which have been hardest hit by the outbreak so far, make it costlier for them to borrow than more fiscally conservative Germany and other northern member states. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, this imbalance nearly led the bloc's common currency, the Euro, to unravel.

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3.5 billion: There are now an estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide under some sort of coronavirus lockdown after residents in Moscow (12 million) and Nigeria's capital Lagos (21 million) were ordered to join the ranks of those quarantined at home.

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North Korea has zero coronavirus cases? North Korea claims to be one of few countries on earth with no coronavirus cases. But can we take the word of the notoriously opaque leadership at face value? Most long-term observers of Pyongyang dismiss as fanciful the notion that the North, which shares a border with China, its main trade partner, was able to avert the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. Many point to Pyongyang's lack of testing capabilities as the real reason why it hasn't reported any COVID-19 cases. To be sure, Kim Jong-un, the North's totalitarian leader, imposed some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world, well before many other countries – closing the Chinese border and quarantining all diplomats. The state's ability to control its people and their movements would also make virus-containment efforts easier to manage. We might not know the truth for some time. But what is clear is that decades of seclusion and crippling economic sanctions have devastated North Korea's health system, raising concerns of its capacity to manage a widespread outbreak of disease.

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As the coronavirus continues to ravage the world, all eyes now turn to the place where it all started. For more than two months, the 11 million residents of Wuhan, the Chinese industrial hub where the novel coronavirus was first detected, have lived under near complete lockdown.

Now, as China reports a dwindling number of new cases, the city's people are slowly emerging back into the daylight. Some travel restrictions remain, but public transportation is largely functioning again, and increasing numbers of people are cautiously – with masks and gloves and digital "health codes" on their phones that permit them to move about – going back to work.

The rest of the world, where most hard-hit countries have imposed various forms of lockdown of their own, is now keenly watching what happens in Wuhan for a glimpse of what might lie in store for the rest of us.

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