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?

Paper was originally made from rags until the introduction of cellulose in 1800. Since then, it has transformed into a "circular" industry, with 55% of paper produced in Italy recovered. It no longer just comes from trees, either. Some companies produce paper with scraps from the processing of other products like wool and walnuts.

Learn more about this rags to riches story in Eni's new Energy Superfacts series.

In late 2017, Zimbabwe's long-serving strongman Robert Mugabe was deposed by the army after 37 years in power. Amid huge popular celebrations, he handed over the reins to Emmerson Mnangagwa, his former spy chief. It was an extraordinary turn of history: Mugabe, one of Africa's last "Big Men" and a hero of the country's liberation war to end white minority rule, went out with barely a whimper, placing Zimbabwe — stricken by economic ruin and international isolation — in the hands of "The Crocodile."

Mugabe has since died, but almost three years after his departure, Zimbabwe's woes continue.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Happy Monday, we are in August, summer, should be taking it a little easier. Coronavirus not taking the stress levels off but hopefully giving people the excuse, if you're not traveling so much, be close with your families, your loved ones and all that. Look, this is not a philosophical conversation, this is a talk about what's happening in the world, a little Quick Take for you.

First of all, you know, I'm getting a little bit more optimistic about the news in the United States right now. Yes, honestly, I am. In part because the caseload is flattening across the country and it's reducing in some of the core states that have seen the greatest explosion in this continuation of the first wave. Yes, the deaths are going up and they should continue to for a couple of weeks because it is a lagging indicator in the United States. But the fact that deaths are going up does not say anything about what's coming in the next few weeks. That tells you what's happened in the last couple of weeks.

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TikTok, ya don't stop: The wildly popular video app TikTok has been in the crosshairs of American lawmakers for many months now. Why? Because the app is owned by a Chinese company, raising national security concerns that it could funnel personal data on its 100 million American users to the Chinese government. The plot thickened in recent days after President Trump abruptly threatened to ban the app altogether, risking a backlash among its users and imperiling US tech giant Microsoft's efforts to buy the company's North American operations. After a weekend conversation between Microsoft and the White House, the sale negotiations are back on but US lawmakers say any deal must strictly prevent American users' data from winding up in Chinese Communist Party servers. The broader fate of TikTok — which has now been banned in India, formerly its largest market, and may be broken up under US pressure — nicely illustrates the new "tech Cold War" that is emerging between China and the United States. A Microsoft/TikTok deal is expected by September 15. Tick..Tock.

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