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?

Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for Eurasia Group, shares updates on recent COVID-19 policy developments:

The Biden administration extended an eviction moratorium even after the Supreme Court said they couldn't, what's next?

Well, the CDC imposed a nationwide eviction moratorium in light of increased risk from evicted people because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Supreme Court in June ruled that they (CDC) overextended their authority in doing so and mandated that the moratorium expire on schedule in July. A group of progressive activists weren't happy about this and raised a huge stink in Congress, but Congress recessed for their August vacation before they could solve the problem, putting big pressure on President Biden to extend the moratorium even though he said he didn't think that it would pass constitutional muster. The CDC did it anyway, extending the moratorium until October 3rd, which is a time that's short enough to probably avoid it being overturned by lawsuits, but long enough that Congress has time to figure out how to either extend it on a bipartisan basis or put more money into a rental assistance fund that few people have taken advantage of so far. This whole incident shows the power of progressive activists in the Biden administration who were able to elevate the profile of this issue and potentially prevent millions of people from losing their homes this summer.

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This week, the market value of Tencent, China's biggest video game company, nosedived after a state media outlet suggested that online gaming was as addictive and destructive as opium. Tencent immediately pledged to cap the number of hours people can play, and to keep minors off its platforms.

It's the latest example of a months-long crackdown on major Chinese technology firms that until recently were viewed as some of the world's most powerful and successful companies, as well as a source of national pride. Beijing's about-face on its own tech titans could have big implications for China, and beyond.

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Iran was involved in two naval incidents in the Gulf of Oman in recent days. The US, UK, and Israel have blamed Iran for a drone attack that killed two European nationals. Iran has rejected the accusations. Iran is also suspected in the "potential hijack" of a tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

These provocations are happening just as Iran inaugurates a new president, Ebrahim Raisi, and as talks continue over the possible US re-entry into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. What's the connection between these events? We asked Henry Rome, Eurasia Group's deputy head of research and a director covering global macro politics and the Middle East.

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Whenever Burkina Faso is in the news, it's often about how the crisis-ridden country has got caught up in the crosshairs of horrific jihadist violence plaguing the Sahel.

But this week, the nation of 20 million was celebrating because Hugues Fabrice Zango won its first-ever Olympic medal after finishing third in the men's triple jump in Tokyo.

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Should people get COVID vaccine booster shots? Not yet, says the World Health Organization, which is pushing for rich nations or those with access to jabs to hold off until at least the end of September so all countries get to fully vaccinate at least 10 percent of their populations before some jump ahead with boosters. But the WHO's call has fallen on deaf ears in nations like Israel, France, Germany and Russia, which are already planning to offer boosters, in part to better protect people against the more contagious delta variant. What's more, mRNA vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna are recommending supplemental doses for the same reason. The problem is that, beyond the obvious moral imperative for equal access to vaccines, if the rich continue hoarding jabs while vaccination rates stay low elsewhere, the virus will continue to thrive — and mutate into new, potentially even more infectious variants that sooner or later will reach every corner of the planet.

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80: If polar ice caps continue to melt at their current pace due to climate change, 80 percent of all emperor penguins will be wiped out by the end of the century because they need the ice for breeding and keeping their offspring safe. American authorities want to list emperor penguins, which only live in Antarctica, as an endangered species so that US fishing vessels will be required to protect them when operating in their habitat.

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On GZERO World, Ian Bremmer takes a look at the yin and the yang of alcohol's role in high-level diplomacy and society at large. Alcohol can bring people together just as easily as it can tear them apart. From a 1995 Clinton/Yeltsin Summit where a drunk Yeltsin almost derailed Bosnian peace talks, to Obama's Beer Summit and the recent G7 Summit, booze plays a part in how world leaders interact. Globally, alcohol consumption has been steadily increasing, by over 70 percent between 1990 and 2017, according to one report. . Low and middle-income nations like Vietnam, India, and China are a driving force behind that trend, with drinking in Southeast Asia rising by over 34 percent between 2010 and 2017. And yet, amidst this global booze boom, the world has only grown more and more divided.

Watch the episode: The (political) power of alcohol

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