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Coronavirus Politics Daily: Prisons opened, borders closed, China helping

Coronavirus Politics Daily: Prisons opened, borders closed, China helping

Read our roundup of COVID-19 themes and stories from around the globe.

Prisoners' dilemma: The coronavirus can't wait to go to jail, where large numbers of people are crammed together in close and often unsanitary quarters with limited healthcare options. And when jails get sick, so do the towns and cities around them. So what's to be done? Iran, one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, has tried simply opening the gates: it has now temporarily released some 85,000 inmates including, interestingly, some political prisoners. Elsewhere, convicts are taking the initiative themselves: jailbirds in Brazil, angry about new coronavirus-related restrictions on their furloughs and visiting hours, recently busted out of prison on their own. "Come back Monday!" shouts an observer who filmed their escape here. No one is sure what will happen in the US, which has the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth, but concerns are acute. Some local jails have already begun releasing people awaiting trial in order to decrease the prison population. Meanwhile New York State has put prisoners to work making hand sanitizer.


Borders closing: Since we hit publish on Signal just 24-hours ago, several more countries have closed their borders to non-citizens and are restricting movement for all but the most essential services. In Europe, the new epicentre of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization, half of the 26 member countries have plans to shut their frontiers soon. The closures are a startling development, bringing an end (for the foreseeable future, at least) to Europe's visa-free Schengen zone, which allows more than 400 million people to move freely without border checks. Beyond Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, and Russia have closed their borders or enforced strict border control measures. It's easy to close borders in a crisis, but when, and under what conditions, they open again will become as much a political question as an epidemiological one.

China steps into the breach: China's early failure to deal transparently with the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is well known, but in recent weeks Beijing has become an important partner for countries in the West that are now grappling with the pandemic – all while reaping some easy public diplomacy wins. Last week, a Chinese aircraft flew doctors and medical supplies to Italy, the worst hit country outside of China. The Czech Republic has sent a plane to China to ferry home 100,000 rapid test kits. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, who is close to China's leadership, donated 500,000 test kits and 1 million masks to the US. The president of Serbia, meanwhile, has declared the EU a "fairy tale" and appealed to China for help in fighting the disease (Serbia is still in the waiting room for EU membership so Belgrade is unhappy with Brussels to begin with.) Broadly, Western governments and doctors alike are increasingly looking to China for best practices and help in squelching the disease. Who, exactly, was the "world's only superpower" again?

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, stretching for more than 2,000 miles, is home to the world's highest mountains. The mountain range is also home to the world's third-largest concentration of snow and ice, earning it the moniker the third pole; only the North and South Poles contain more. The glaciers of the Hindu Kush Himalayas are the main source of fresh water for around two billion people living in the region. However, by the end of this century, two-thirds of that snow and ice could be lost because of climate change. A network of data scientists and environmentalists around the world, and on the ground in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, are working to understand the extent of glacial melting in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, its effects and what can be done to minimize its impact. To read more visit Microsoft on the Issues.

When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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The Democrats shocked the country by eking out a 50-50 majority in the US Senate earlier this month, securing control of the House, Senate and Executive. But do they have enough power to impose the kinds of restrictions to Big Tech that many believe are sorely needed? Renowned tech columnist Kara Swisher is not so sure. But there is one easy legislative win they could pursue early on. "I think it's very important to have privacy legislation, which we currently do not have: a 'national privacy bill.' Every other country does." Swisher's wide-ranging conversation with Ian Bremmer was part of the latest episode of GZERO World.

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

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Over the weekend, some 40,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across Russia braved subzero temperatures to turn out in the streets in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested, and Navalny called on his followers to prepare for more action in the coming weeks.

But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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