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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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What We're Watching: Malaysian PM hopeful, Mozambique needs EU help vs ISIS, Polish fur politics

Malaysian political drama: Malaysia's (eternal) opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim says he finally has enough votes in parliament to be appointed prime minister, seven months after the coalition that was going to support him collapsed amid an internal revolt that also forced out 95-year-old Mahathir Mohamed as head of the government. Two years ago, Mahathir — who governed Malaysia from 1980 to 2003 — shocked the country by running in the 2018 election and defeating his former party UMNO, which had dominated Malaysian politics since independence in 1956. After winning, Mahathir agreed to hand over power to Anwar — a former protégé with whom he had a falling out in the late 1990s — but Mahathir's government didn't last long enough to do the swap. Will Anwar now realize his lifelong dream of becoming Malaysia's prime minister? Stay tuned for the next parliamentary session in November.

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What We’re Watching: Former Malaysian PM sentenced, Turkey backs down on sea plans, Europe quarantines Spain

Former Malaysian leader gets 12 years: A Malaysian court on Tuesday sentenced former prime minister Najib Razak to 12 years in prison for corruption related to the multibillion-dollar 1MDB state investment fund scandal, which brought down his government 2 years ago. According to the judge, Najib received more than $700 million out of the at least $4.5 billion that 1MDB looted from state coffers to pay for luxury hotels, yachts and even the Hollywood film "The Wolf of Wall Street." Although he was convicted of using part of the money to buy his wife a $27 million pink diamond necklace and to fund his political campaigns, the former PM insists he was duped by fugitive financier Jho Low and his partner Riza Aziz, Najib's stepson. So, what happens now? While the sentence is a permanent stain on his record, Najib is out on bail and will not go to jail until he exhausts the appeals process. Also, his political party returned to power in February and is now the biggest bloc in the current Malay nationalist alliance government, while Najib himself — who remains immensely popular among many ethnic Malays — is an elected MP and will only be disqualified if the conviction stands. The bottom line: whether or not (or even if) he ends up behind bars will test how serious Malaysia is about rooting out corruption.

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The Graphic Truth: Who claims what in the South China Sea?

For decades, China has claimed exclusive sovereignty over the South China Sea, citing a 1947 map. But five other countries — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — also lay claim to parts of it, and in 2016 an international court struck down Beijing's arguments. Now, for the first time, the United States too has officially supported that ruling. Here's a look at who claims what in one of the world's busiest waterways.

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