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What We're Watching: Saudi olive branch for Biden, US-China call, Ecuador's runoff in limbo

Saudi women's rights advocate set free: After three years behind bars, Loujain al-Hathloul — locked up for lobbying for women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia — has been released from jail. The move is broadly seen as a low-stakes overture to President Biden by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who knows that the new US administration will not be as friendly as Trump's. Since coming into office, Biden has said the US will halt support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, and drop the Houthi militant group — Riyadh's rival in Yemen — from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism (a move that's caused a big stir in the foreign policy world). In contrast to Trump, who employed a maximum-pressure campaign on Iran much to the Saudis' delight, Biden says reengaging with Tehran (and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal) is a foreign policy priority. Indeed, the Saudis got comfortable with a US that sold it limitless weapons and ignored its human rights abuses — and prioritized relations with the kingdom to the extent that Trump made his first trip abroad to Riyadh (remember that weird orb moment). Biden has made clear that things will change under his watch, and the Saudis are slowly testing the waters.

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An exhausted Ecuador votes

On Sunday, Ecuadorans head to the polls after what has been, by any standards, a hellish 18 months.

In October 2019, the oil-dependent Andean country of 17 million people was wracked by protests and violent clashes over a plan to cut fuel subsidies that was part of a lending lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.

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Coronavirus Politics Daily: Rural Ecuador needs doctors, Greece's tourism slump, Nigerian doctors strike

Ecuador's dearth of doctors: When COVID-19 began to ravage Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, the government transferred medical workers from rural areas to the city to help overwhelmed hospitals deal with the surge in cases. But now as coronavirus cases pile up in small towns and fishing settlements along the nation's Pacific Coast, villagers say there are no doctors left to treat them or to prescribe medication. Anecdotal evidence reveals that many people with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, particularly those in rural areas where poverty is rife and access to healthcare was limited even before the pandemic, can't get tested for the infectious disease. In many cases, they have relied on natural remedies such as lemon and eucalyptus to manage their respiratory ailments in recent weeks. Community leaders say they have appealed to the health ministry for help but have yet to receive a response. Ecuador, which has one of the highest COVID-19 caseloads in Latin America, has recorded almost 3,000 deaths from the disease, but authorities acknowledge that, given the state of the country's overstretched healthcare system, the death count is likely much higher.

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Coronavirus Politics Daily: Ecuador as epicenter, Italians want answers, global vaccine effort without the US?

Ecuador, a coronavirus epicenter: While the spread of coronavirus in China, Europe, and the United States has garnered media attention for weeks, the Latin American country of Ecuador has quietly been grappling with one of the worst outbreaks in the world. In recent weeks, suddenly overwhelmed morgues in the industrial hub of Guayaquil forced people to leave their dead wrapped in sheets on city sidewalks. The real death toll in the country is likely 15-times higher than the official count of 500, according to a chilling New York Times investigation, making the country the epicenter of the outbreak in Latin America. And that's not because of a coverup – government officials acknowledge that the statistics are likely a gross undercount because of their lack of capacity to test for and control the surging number of cases. Ecuador's case is a grim foreshadowing of how the pandemic may play out in other developing countries, where weak infrastructure, insufficient resources, and pre-existing political and economic challenges impede public health efforts.

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