COVID cases jump. The world reopens anyway.

COVID cases jump. The world reopens anyway.

Six months since the first coronavirus case was identified in Wuhan, China, the number of new daily COVID infections peaked last week with more than 177,000 cases reported globally. Yet, though the virus continues to spread like wildfire — mostly in emerging market economies — reopening plans continue to unfurl. Why?

The answer is straightforward: survival. For many people in the developing world, going to work is the difference between food on the table and starvation. There's only so much governments can do, therefore, to force people to stay at home. Ordering a lockdown when large numbers of people will simply ignore the order isn't good economics or good politics.

That's why the blueprint for slowing the spread of the virus in the US and Europe won't always work in countries that rely on informal economies to stay afloat. Here are four cases in point.


Mexico: Populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, was slow to shut things down and initially dismissive of the dangers posed by the virus. Mexico has since climbed the list of global hotspots to record almost 24,000 deaths to date, while new cases surge. But the streets of Mexico City, home to 21 million people, are busy again as many return to work in the country's informal sector, which generates nearly a quarter of Mexico's economic output. Many workers living hand-to-mouth say they are more scared of dying from lockdown-induced hunger than of COVID-19. Hospitals are now inundated, and AMLO has since tried to reinstall some restrictions, but anecdotal evidence suggests that compliance is limited. "For us, it's a luxury to get sick," one informal worker told the New York Times.

South Africa: President Cyril Ramaphosa moved swiftly to impose lockdowns in March – and to dole out cash to ease the economic blow for South African families. Despite the effort, South Africa – one of the most economically unequal countries in the world – has recorded more new COVID cases in recent days than at any point during the pandemic. That's in part because many workers have returned to work for fear they'll go hungry unless they quickly bring in cash. With no support for the country's unregulated sector, which employs some 30 percent of South African workers, long-term lockdowns are not sustainable, a reality Ramaphosa recently acknowledged. Add the problem that social distancing is all but impossible for millions living in impoverished townships.

Brazil: Brazil's COVID caseload surpassed one million this week, and the country topped 50,000 deaths. Fingers are now pointed at President Jair Bolsonaro, who has rebuffed social-distancing measures and joined protests calling for the economy to reopen. In many of Brazil's low-income favelas, where the virus has hit particularly hard, community leaders have found innovative ways to monitor cases and supplement poor health and social services. But that only goes so far. In the slums of Rio and São Paulo, where families are packed tightly together with poor sanitation, lockdowns don't always make people safer. Data shows that people who live in these impoverished areas are up to 10 times more likely to die if they contract the coronavirus than people who live in Brazil's wealthier enclaves.

India: Amid ongoing tensions with China, India's government is also grappling with a surge in COVID cases. There were 16,000 new infections on Wednesday alone, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began. Prime Minister Narendra Modi even called on the military to manage makeshift health centers in Delhi to prevent panic and chaos as bed shortages loom. Nonetheless, millions of Indians filled buses, trains, and sidewalks in recent days as lockdown restrictions were eased across the country. Modi gave the greenlight to reopen because the country's economy is in free fall. Indeed, the lockdowns have been particularly brutal for Indians who rely on day labor to make ends meet, many of whom live in unsanitary slums where social distancing is a fantasy, and disease already thrives.

In all four countries, the ability to manage the health crisis is limited by hard economic truths and the limits of political power.

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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