Strongmen heart this pandemic

Strongmen heart this pandemic

Every crisis creates an opportunity for somebody, and a global pandemic can be a great one for strongmen (or aspiring ones.) Around the world, states of emergency, lockdowns, and restrictions on information are creating a perfect opportunity for big power grabs, particularly in countries with weak or non-existent democracies.

So, let's say you, on this fine pandemic Wednesday, are an autocrat — or at least an aspiring one. Here are a few reasons why you might be excited about the pandemic, and few things to worry about before summoning your lackeys for a crackdown party.


Pandemics can boost your power, and fast. Controlling the spread of a disease naturally requires broad state powers to restrict movement, commerce, and information. You can now push through new emergency laws that give you virtually unchecked power. And if you're smart, like Hungary's "illiberal" Prime Minister Viktor Orban, you'll leave them open-ended.

Here's a good excuse to stifle criticism. Fake news is a killer during public health crises, when people need timely and accurate information about outbreaks and government responses. But "fakeness" is often in the eye of the beholder. Stiff new penalties for spreading vaguely-defined "panic" or "misinformation" in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, and Hungary have sent a chill through the press in those countries more broadly.

Protests are less likely and easier to control. Who wants to be with thousands of shouting people right now? Six months ago, protest movements were sizzling all over the world – now it's crickets in the streets. All but your hardiest or most creative opponents will stay home. And you can use (real) public health concerns to prohibit or quash any demonstrations.

What's this about contact tracing and surveillance? Needless to say, you are very excited about using contact-tracing and facial recognition tools to do more than just track a virus. Even the world's leading democracies are going down this path – with privacy guardrails that are less of a concern for you — and it's a great excuse to build out better ways to surveil and control your people (and your opponents).

All that said, a national health emergency also poses real risks for you. Consider:

The buck really stops with you. Those coronavirus numbers aren't going to reduce themselves. If they rise too high, you can try to blame subordinates or outsiders. But in the end, the more power you assume, the more you're on the hook if things go badly.

Cracking down on speech or journalists is a double-edged sword. If you stifle the flow of accurate, widely-sourced information about outbreaks and your government's response, you can end up making dumb mistakes – or bad recommendations - like the president of Belarus.

How competent are your lackeys again? To tackle a health crisis you need capable bureaucrats to execute complex plans. But if you – like most strongmen – have chosen your ministers and governors more for loyalty than competence, they'll quickly face problems that force them to choose between protecting the public's health and protecting the leader's authority.

In short, a pandemic offers you great opportunities – but how lucky do you feel?

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Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.

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Vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens before the rest of the world, has been effective for rich nations like the United States and Israel. But leaving behind so much of the global population isn't just a humanitarian issue. It could prolong the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization's Chief Scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, who argues that what the global vaccination effort most urgently lacks are doses, not dollars. In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, she calls for a large increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and suggests we may be seeing alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

Listen: Soumya Swaminathan calls for a massive increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants, in a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast. Dr. Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, argues that vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens ahead of the rest of the world, will only prolong the pandemic because a virus does not stop at any national border. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and discusses when she thinks the world's children should get vaccinated. In addition, she suggests we may see alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

India, the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is one of the countries worst affected by climate change. But it takes issue with those now asking it to clean up its act. Why, the Indians ask, should we give up our right to get rich by burning fossil fuels like you developed economies have done for generations?

That's precisely the message that India's energy minister had for the US and other wealthy nations at a recent Zoom summit after they pressured Delhi to set a future deadline for net zero emissions. For India, he explained, such targets are "pie in the sky" aspirations that do little to address the climate crisis the country faces right now.

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The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are nearly a year away, but discussion of a potential boycott is already stoking tensions on both sides of the US-China relationship. Officials in Washington and other Western capitals are coming under mounting pressure from activists to respond to human rights abuses in China. An increasingly assertive Beijing, meanwhile, vigorously rejects any foreign criticism of what it regards as internal issues.

The last time the US boycotted an Olympics was in 1980, when it withdrew from the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union repaid in kind by skipping the Games in Los Angeles. Would the US and its allies do something like that again? And how might China respond? Eurasia Group analysts Neil Thomas and Allison Sherlock explain the drivers of the boycott movement and its possible fallout.

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In two weeks, US President Joe Biden will be hosting an online "climate summit" to mark Earth Day. He'll ask China and India to sign up to America's ambitious new plan to slow down climate change. Will they go for it? China is the world's largest polluter, but Beijing is rolling out solar and wind power as fast as it's burning coal. India, meanwhile, is loathe to pick up the slack for rich countries that polluted their way to wealth and now want everyone else to agree to emissions cuts. No matter what happens, any successful plan to reduce global emissions will require buy-in from these three nations which, along with the European Union, account for almost 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions nowadays. Here's a look at emissions by the world's top polluters compared to everyone else over the last two decades.

Two big Andean elections: This Sunday, Ecuadorians go to the polls for the second time this year in a close presidential runoff, while Peruvians will vote in the first round of their own presidential election. In Ecuador, the matchup is between the leftwing-populist frontrunner Andrés Arauz, who has pledged to blow up the country's IMF agreements and boost national oil production, and Guillermo Lasso, a pro-business candidate who is seen as the choice of continuity with the current market-friendly government. Voter abstention is likely to be high, and the final result could very well be close and contested in a polarized country that was struggling with massive social unrest even before the pandemic struck. Meanwhile in Peru — which recently went through three presidents in the space of a week — the candidate field is hugely fragmented. Those with a decent shot to make it to the second round include "change" candidates like the leftist former lawmakers Yohny Lescano and Verónica Mendoza, as well as the prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, who has recently risen in the polls. Former soccer star George Forsyth is also in the mix, as is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori. Both of this Sunday's elections will serve as a kind of bellwether for the political mood in a region that has been devastated by the public health and economic impact of the pandemic.

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