Coronavirus: The Politics

Coronavirus: The Politics

Coronavirus, and the anxiety it provokes, have spread far beyond China. More than 1,200 additional cases are now confirmed across more than 30 countries. Fears are growing that the outbreak has reached the early stages of a global pandemic, because infections in South Korea, Italy, and Iran have no apparent connection to China, where the first reported cases emerged.

Alongside its obvious public health and economic effects, coronavirus is also shaking up politics—especially in a few countries where governments have good cause to worry how citizens will judge their performance.


In South Korea, there are now hundreds of confirmed cases, and President Moon Jae-in must worry that his handling of the crisis will become a central issue in parliamentary elections scheduled for April 15. The political stakes were high well before coronavirus appeared in the headlines. If his Democratic Party of Korea performs poorly, Moon may soon find himself a lame duck.

In Italy, tens of thousands of people in northern provinces have been quarantined. A government composed of awkward political bedfellows, the Five Star Movement and Democratic Party, wants to avoid early elections that might well oust both from power. As public anxiety rises, they'll have to prove they can stop squabbling and work together to manage this metastasizing problem.

In Iran, an embattled government admits the virus has become a "national problem," even as it denies charges that it's hiding the true number of infections and deaths. This government was already contending with the impact of US sanctions on an enfeebled economy, the public admission that Iran's military accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, and record low turnout in national elections that many say were manipulated to boost conservative regime loyalists. Now coronavirus has given the public another reason to question its competence.

In the United States, Trump administration officials are reportedly discussing the impact of a potential outbreak in the US on public health, US markets, and the president's re-election prospects. Yesterday, Trump backed off a plan to house American coronavirus patients in Alabama.

Fear and loathing

It's too early to know whether we're heading toward a global pandemic. For now, more than 99 percent of deaths have occurred in China. But credible (and potentially deadly) threats to public health can have big political and economic impacts even if the worries turn out to have been exaggerated.

A few observations:

Fake news feeds the fear. Last week, residents of a small town in Ukraine attacked a bus carrying 72 people, 45 of them Ukrainian citizens, who had been evacuated from China. This fury was triggered by an email campaign, which Ukrainian officials say originated outside the country, spreading the false rumor that the passengers had been infected. None had.

The anger is usually targeted at foreigners. Social media have both spread and highlighted coronavirus-related xenophobic attacks on Asians in many countries. There are leaders in a number of countries who have argued in recent years for tighter border controls and a country-first approach to crisis. In that sense, coronavirus may help them.

The true political impact of coronavirus will be tough to measure. Under normal circumstances, angry citizens vent their fury through public protest. We've seen plenty of that in countries in every region of the world over the past year. But this is hardly the moment when your average angry citizen wants to be part of a crowd.

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The European Union is, for better or worse, the most ambitious experiment in human history in institutionalized multinational cooperation. Its success depends on the willingness of its members to abide by its rules.

In recent years, the populist-nationalist governments of former Communist bloc members Hungary and Poland have flouted some of those rules in order to boost their own popularity with citizens suspicious of the EU's liberal values on issues like immigration and minority rights. In response, the EU has scolded these "illiberal" governments and threatened forceful action – so far without much effect.

The fight between EU institutions and Poland and Hungary has escalated.

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Ian Bremmer is joined on GZERO World by artificial intelligence scientists Kai-fu Lee, who recently wrote about how AI will change the world over the next two decades, precisely to talk about AI's future. After this week's Facebook debacle, how can we align interest to regulate AI-driven algorithms? Will AI steal all our jobs? And what should we do to learn from AI to improve our lives before it gets smarter than us?

Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Is a robot coming for your job? Kai-fu Lee explains AI

US elections officials have always persuaded losing candidates that they've, ahem, lost. Now it's worse because there's a new paradigm, according to former DHS and Election Assistance Commission official Matt Masterson, policy fellow with the Stanford Internet Observatory. Candidates that won't accept defeat regardless of the margin or evidence of fraud, he says, are undermining trust in the system — and election officials are ill-equipped to deal with this problem.

Matt Masterson made these remarks during a live Global Stage event, Infodemic: defending democracy from disinformation. Watch the full event here: https://www.gzeromedia.com/global-stage/virtual-events/disinformation-is-a-big-problem-what-can-we-do-about-it

Who's most responsible for spreading misinformation online? For Ginny Badanes, senior director for Democracy Forward at Microsoft, the problem starts with those who create it, yet ultimately governments, companies and individuals all share the burden. And she's more interested in what we can do to respond.

Ginny Badanes spoke at a live Global Stage event, Infodemic: defending democracy from disinformation. Watch the full event here: https://www.gzeromedia.com/global-stage/virtual-events/disinformation-is-a-big-problem-what-can-we-do-about-it

Some of the worst sectarian clashes since Lebanon's 15-year civil war (1975-1990) broke out in Beirut this week between supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, both Shiite political parties, and Christian, far-right Lebanese Forces. Shiite protesters were rallying against the state probe into the Beirut port blast, which occurred last year. They say authorities were singling out Shiite politicians for questioning and blame. In this video, watch Ian Bremmer's conversation with Lebanese journalist and author Kim Ghattas on GZW talking about the future of Lebanese politics and sectarianism in the county after the after the blast. It was originally published on August 19, 2020.

In Lebanon, "a majority (are) united in wanting a different future, a future that is non-sectarian, that is non-corrupt, that provides prosperity, justice, dignity for people," journalist Kim Ghattas told Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.

In this interview, Ghattas discusses the opportunity that could arise from the tragedy of the Beirut explosion which killed 200 and injured thousands more. The Lebanese are "fed up" with the militant group Hezbollah, she tells Bremmer, and want to strive for a government that better resembles the diversity and cosmopolitan nature of its citizens.

Watch the GZERO World episode: Lebanon Post-Blast: Rage in the Streets of Beirut.

Some of the worst sectarian clashes since Lebanon's 15-year civil war (1975-1990) broke out in Beirut this week between supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, both Shiite political parties, and Christian, far-right Lebanese Forces. Shiite protesters were rallying against the state probe into the Beirut port blast, which occurred last year. They say authorities were singling out Shiite politicians for questioning and blame. Below is our original piece on the Beirut port explosions published on August 5, 2020.


The twin explosions at Beirut's port on Tuesday were so powerful that the aftershocks reverberated as far as the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 150 miles away. The specter of fire and smoke was such that many suggested on social media that Beirut had experienced a nuclear blast.

In the days ahead, more details will come to light about why a deadly cache of materials was haphazardly stashed at a port warehouse, and why Lebanon's government failed to secure the site. So, what comes next for crisis-ridden Lebanon?

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

What does it actually mean to cut $1 trillion from the Democrats' $3.5 trillion social spending bill?

President Biden has proposed one of the most ambitious expansions of federal spending in recent memory. If he gets everything he wants, it would probably be the largest expansion of government since the Great Society, but he's not going to get everything he wants. Democrats have basically said they cannot do all $3.5 trillion in spending. They're probably going to end up around $2 trillion. So what gets cut? Well, we don't know yet. There's kind of two ways to go about this. They could either cut the number of programs that have been proposed, doing fewer things with more money on a permanent basis, or they could try to do more things, each program getting less money and potentially doing them on a temporary basis. So, a future Congress would have to extend it. What does this mean for you? Well, a lot of the money in here is designed to go directly to families, either in the form of cash payments, through the tax code, the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, or subsidies for things like child care, early childhood education, and community college. And if you cut these things back, it means less money is going to go out the door to the American people. It also means less tax increases to finance it. So the implications of what's being proposed could actually end up being a big deal for a lot of Americans who would qualify for benefits under these new programs.

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