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.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

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