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.

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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