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What We’re Watching: Navalny’s return to Russia, Italian PM in the hot seat, COVID probe begins

Kremlin critic heads home: Leading Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny plans to return to Russia on Sunday from Germany, where he has been recovering from an August 2020 assassination attempt in Russia widely attributed to agents of the Kremlin. The stakes are high: for one thing, the moment he lands, Navalny faces up to 3.5 years in prison for failing to comply with the terms of a suspended prison sentence he received in a 2014 graft trial. But the Kremlin will have to tread carefully. Navalny, a charismatic, nationalistic anti-corruption crusader with a sizable following among Russia's urban elite, has long been a thorn in President Vladimir Putin's side. But jailing him could turn him into a political martyr (as opposed to a literal martyr, which seemed to be the plan back in August) right as Russia heads towards legislative elections this winter. Those elections could prove dicey for the Kremlin: the Russian leader's popularity is near historic lows and the country is reeling from coronavirus. Putin also remembers that it was the rigged elections of 2011 that provoked the largest street protests in Russia's post-Soviet history. Who led them? Alexey Navalny.

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The Graphic Truth: The unequal road to herd immunity

When will we return to a pre-pandemic normal by achieving COVID-19 herd immunity? Well, that depends where you live. While a host of wealthy nations that stockpiled vaccines and have already started rolling them out are planning for a post-COVID recovery in the near-term, the bulk of middle-income states will have to wait many months until the vaccine is rolled out to large swaths of the population. Most developing nations, meanwhile, as well as countries that will only get drugs through the global COVAX facility, may still be living with the coronavirus for three more years, according to predictions by The Economist Intelligence Unit. We compare when the pandemic is likely to end in different groups of countries, based on their access to vaccines and rollout plans.

Vaccine politics and human rights

More than 32 million COVID shots have now been administered globally, raising hopes that the light at the end of the tunnel is now in sight.

The US has vaccinated 3 percent of its total population, while the UK is nearing a solid 5 percent inoculation rate. In Israel, which has been hailed as a vaccine success story, almost 24 percent of people have already received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

But while many countries are able to glimpse the outlines of a post-COVID world, there is a huge population of people who are being left out entirely. Refugees, as well as displaced, undocumented, and stateless people around the world remain ineligible for inoculations and vulnerable to the coronavirus.

We take a look at three case studies where powerless populations are being left in the lurch.

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What We're Watching: South Africa's COVID surge, the elusiveness of herd immunity, Malaysia's political emergency

South Africa shuts its borders: As a new COVID variant rips through South Africa, the country's prime minister Cyril Ramaphosa moved to close the country's land borders until at least February 15. This drastic decision comes after the government already shuttered public beaches and parks in recent weeks to avoid gatherings during the busy summer break. The newly discovered COVID variant is spreading at a much faster rate than the initial wave of infection, which peaked in the country in July. Medical professionals say that South Africa is experiencing a massive post-holiday spike in COVID-19 cases as people travelled (against government advice) to coastal areas, leading to massive spikes in hubs like Johannesburg and Pretoria. Hospitalizations and deaths are now surging in South Africa, and the 7-day rolling average of daily deaths has risen 75 percent over the past 14 days. While the country of 60 million people now accounts for a disproportionate 30 percent of all infections in Africa, it will not get access to any vaccines through the COVAX scheme until the second quarter of this year — if not later. Meanwhile, the virus waits for no one.

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Why the UK is on lockdown; Iran pushes Biden on uranium levels

Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

Why is the UK going on lockdown again?

I know. And it looks like six weeks to, this is the highest level of lockdown they do. And it's this new strain of coronavirus, which it's not more lethal, but it is much more infectious. And thank God all of the vaccines work equally well against it. But nonetheless, the vaccines are still very early stages in rolling out and coronavirus is a very robust stages of rolling out. So, you were getting greater levels of hospitalization right now in the UK than in their spring peak. The case levels were exploding and so they just shut it down. Germany is extending their lockdown and here in New York City, I just heard yesterday, we've got the first confirmed cases of the new strain. This is, it's not a game changer because the vaccines are the game changer and the vaccines are rolling out and as they do, we're going to feel very, very differently, but it does mean that explosive caseload and more hospitalizations, and indeed more people dying in the coming weeks is something we're going to have to gird ourselves for. But I still think, when you looked at our top risk piece this year, we didn't make coronavirus, the number one risk and it's because of the vaccines. Also, in the nature of this disease that really does focus so much of the mortality is in a very small percentage of the population, the most elderly and the most sick. And so, in just a few weeks, four, six weeks, when we get to 10% of the population in the US that's been vaccinated, suddenly you're going to have probably some 90% of the mortality taken out of the disease. You still have concerns about long COVID, you still have people that can be sick for a long time. But just think psychologically about how much we've all been carrying about just been worrying, the worry we've had of the people that we are close to who are in their high seventies or older, or already have medical conditions and we know that if they are to get this disease, they could very easily die. That is something we're not going to have to worry about in just a few more weeks. I think that's the game changer for 2021, frankly. That's a really good news story, so something that's worth mentioning.

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