The high-stakes fight against coronavirus

The high-stakes fight against coronavirus

As anxiety about the coronavirus outbreak continues to mount, it's worth taking a step back and looking at how different countries have handled this global health emergency. Here's a quick roundup:

China bungled its early response to the new and deadly virus when it first emerged in the city of Wuhan in December. It's only just now starting to get things back under control after a severe crackdown that imposed huge economic and social costs on its 1.4 billion-strong population. Contrast China's aggressive and apparently effective measures with those of Iran, where an authoritarian government exacerbated its early mistakes by refusing to cordon off infected areas and – allegedly – covering up the true number of cases, resulting in a sharply climbing death toll.


Asian democracies with strong central governments and competent, technocratic bureaucracies have fared relatively well during the outbreak. To date, Taiwan has managed to keep the outbreak to a few dozen cases by steadily expanding tests, travel restrictions, and quarantines as the scope of the emergency became clearer in January and February. Singapore has managed a similarly effective response – a necessity given its proximity and economic ties with the Chinese mainland. South Korea was hit hard early on, but appears to have avoided the need for a China-style crackdown by rapidly expanding testing and mobilizing its strong pandemic preparedness resources. Other countries are now looking to replicate these efforts.

Italy was caught off-guard by how quickly the virus spread across its northern industrial heartland. A few weeks ago, it had just a handful of cases. Now it has the highest reported death toll of any country outside of China. This week, the government launched the most aggressive crackdown so far of any Western democracy, including sharp restrictions on travel and banning public gatherings. (Still, that falls short of the "wartime" conditions imposed in Wuhan, where residents were subject to door-to-door health checks and sick people were herded into quarantine camps). Meanwhile, cases in France, Spain, and Germany are growing fast. More aggressive measures to slow the spread of the disease in these countries may also become increasingly likely in coming days.

Then there's the US. Although the Trump administration imposed restrictions on travel to and from China and Iran by early February, the broader US response has been hampered by a lack of access to testing kits (which the administration initially refused to accept from the WHO) and muddled (to put it kindly) messaging from the White House. On Monday, a former national security official who used to head pandemic preparedness at the White House before his position was cut in 2018 warned that time was running out for authorities to get the outbreak under control.

Bottom line: Governments that missed their initial chance to contain the threat can still make up lost ground – but at a heavy cost. In both cases, competent authorities and solid public health strategies are only part of the solution. The other big variable is whether citizens themselves support governments and work with them – as seems to be the case in many of the Asian countries – or disregard and distrust them. With the virus bearing down on a widening swathe of Europe and the United States, we will soon find out a lot more about how well the Western democracies cope with this challenge.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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