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Welcome to this special edition of Signal, where we'll look at whether the coronavirus pandemic will strengthen or weaken populist leaders.

This edition is part of a joint project between GZERO Media and Citi that explores how global political trends affect people's lives, called "Living Beyond Borders."

-Alex Kliment

Populists and the plague

Alex KlimentYou might think that a global public health crisis would boost public trust in experts, reinforce support for international cooperation, and restore faith in the multilateral institutions leading the response. You might, therefore, assume that the coronavirus pandemic wouldn't play in favor of the largely expert-blasting, populist nationalists who have swept to power in recent years. In truth, the picture is more mixed, and populists may ultimately benefit from the pandemic upheaval. A few thoughts:

First, populists aren't doing a markedly worse job than anyone else. The countries suffering the world's five largest death tolls — US, Brazil, India, Mexico, and the United Kingdom — are all led by populists, but all that tells us is that several of the world's largest countries are run by populists (bigger populations will give you a higher total number of infections and deaths). When you look at the top ten countries by death rate, populists are barely half of the group (see our Graphic Truth, below). What's more, some prominent populists, like Hungary's Viktor Orbán or Turkey's Recep Erdogan, have managed the crisis well by acting early and decisively — perhaps too decisively for the comfort of democracy watchdogs in the case of Orbán.

Even the populist leaders with large outbreaks mentioned above have avoided paying a big political price—at least so far. All these leaders have downplayed the severity of the virus, but we found that they have kept relatively stable in the polls thanks to strongly committed base voters, generally weak opposition, and shrewd exploitation of the growing economic frustration of the millions whom lockdowns have left jobless.

Looking ahead, the aftermath of the crisis may create fertile ground for populist messages. Even before the pandemic struck, concerns about inequality were reshaping politics in the world's democracies, eroding support for traditional parties and opening space for political outsiders. A Pew poll run just before the pandemic found that two-thirds of people surveyed across 34 countries thought inequality was getting worse, and more than half were dissatisfied with their political systems and job prospects.

The pandemic is going to make inequality worse. In wealthy countries, the public health and economic burdens of the crisis have fallen disproportionately on poorer or minority communities. The millions of service jobs that will come back slowest — if at all — are held mostly by lower income workers. Where schools remain closed, the impact will be greatest on children from less affluent households that lack high-speed internet access or technology for remote learning.

At the same time, on a global scale, poorer countries will suffer a bigger economic blow than richer ones. Developing countries, many of which have thin financial cushions, are suffering a triple-whammy of collapsing exports, lower remittance flows, and evaporating tourism. The IMF is struggling to coordinate adequate relief.

Populists — of both the left and the right — tend to excel in moments of economic crisis and uncertainty. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was critical in reviving long-dormant European populist parties that would reshape politics in the years after (consider that the World Bank forecasts the pandemic's economic impact to be more than twice as severe as the one that followed the global financial crisis ten years ago).

A "social explosion" awaits. As one prominent local journalist in Latin America recently pointed out to us, even before the pandemic her region was in the throes of massive protests over inequality. Now, with the pandemic projected to plunge 45 million Latin Americans into poverty, what was already a tinderbox is practically a fireworks warehouse.

What's more, economic anguish in slow-to-recover developing countries may also prompt fresh waves of migration towards richer economies — providing ample fodder for rightwing anti-immigrant populists who will, as Viktor Orban and Italy's Matteo Salvini have done, sound the alarm about migrants who will supposedly steal jobs and spread disease.

It's hardly a foregone conclusion that populist messages will resonate loudest. The European Union, for example, agreed over the summer to a massive pandemic bailout and reconstruction package meant to blunt the appeal of Euroskeptic populists. The outcome of the US election on November 3 could yet unseat the most powerful populist in the world.

Food for thought: Will the hardships created by COVID-19 give a bigger boost to populists of the right or the left? What do you think?

The Graphic Truth 

Gabrielle Debinski

It's been more than six months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Cases and deaths have continued to surge around the world — with new hotspots emerging in Latin America and South Asia. A robust global conversation has unfolded in recent months about how politicians in different countries have handled the once-in-a-generation global health crisis, and whether the anti-science views of some populist leaders — like Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and President Donald Trump in the US —have led to worse outcomes. Here's a look at states with the highest COVID-19 deaths tolls per capita — with highlights for those governed by overtly populist/anti-establishment leaders.

Join us for six virtual events starting on September 23

Citi Private Bank

'Regeneration' is a mind set and collection of practices which bring a different framing to the moment we find ourselves in. Rather than asking how can we bounce back from the crisis, this approach asks how we might create a system that can evolve, learn, and respond more effectively to the complex challenges that we face now and in the future.

Learn more.

The Graphic Truth

Carlos Santamaria

Before the coronavirus hit Europe in March, mainstream political parties were struggling to contain the rise of populist and anti-establishment forces. Did COVID-19 change that trend? While a handful of major populist parties have lost some support and a few others have gained in the polls, voter intention for most of these forces has not in fact changed significantly. We take a look a how ten EU populist parties have polled over the past six months.

​PODCAST: Is Globalization Cancelled?

Globalization came with a big promise: that the swifter movement of goods, investment, and people across borders would raise the economic tide and lift all boats. But decades into the experiment and months into the worst global crisis in a lifetime, nationalist populism remains on the rise. In this critical moment, is there a way forward that harnesses the economic power of globalization while more equitably distributing its benefits? This episode of the Living Beyond Borders podcast features Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, along with Citi's Global Chief Economist Catherine Mann in a conversation about the future of globalism moderated by Meredith Sumpter. You can find it here.

What We're Watching: COVID elections, jobs lost forever, Africa's COVID enigma

Willis Sparks

Elections continue despite pandemic: Nearly two-thirds of Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis. Americans, like voters everywhere, are at odds on many issues these days. But a Trump victory in November would signal that voters aren't ready to blame political leaders for the coronavirus' impact while a loss would make him the world's first COVID-19 political casualty. There are more upcoming coronavirus election tests. Regional elections in Italy later this month will test the strength of that country's wobbly coalition government. Hard-hit Iran will hold a presidential election next June—though it's not clear how far the clerical establishment will go to limit voter choices—and the government's pandemic response will shape broader views of its competence. Voters in virus-ravaged Peru will have their say in April 2021, and Mexico will hold congressional elections in July. A power transition in Germany next year will allow voters angry over COVID-19 restrictions to air their grievances.

Why COVID will erase some jobs for good: Many who've lost jobs during the pandemic will return to work once vaccinations bring COVID-19 under control. But there are three reasons why many others will find their jobs are gone for good. One, some businesses will not survive the economic stress. Two, some employers will see layoffs as a chance to lower labor costs as their companies struggle to restore profitability. Three, COVID-19 has increased incentives for many businesses to accelerate the process of replacing workers with machines that work around the clock and don't take sick days. These inter-related problems will leave large numbers of people in financial trouble in both developed and developing countries. International lenders like the International Monetary Fund will be hard-pressed to answer every call for help from cash-strapped governments, and taxpayers in wealthier countries will demand their governments focus spending on recovery at home rather than bailouts abroad.

Africa isn't out of the woods (yet): So far, the African continent has suffered far fewer COVID infections and deaths than many feared. There are many theories — some of them contradictory — of why that's the case. Some credit demographics: More than 60 percent of Africans are under 25, and young people are believed to weather the virus with fewer bad effects. Some hypothesize that the continent's lower population density makes a difference, while others ask whether crowded urban slums in some countries have exposed many residents to coronaviruses of the past, bolstering immune responses to COVID-19. But these are just theories, and Africa isn't out of the woods. As home to many of the world's poorest countries and people, what happens in Africa will help shape international attitudes toward globalism and whatever barriers might prevent the free flows of people, because there's no region where hardship can push more people from their homes and across borders.

Hard Numbers: Nicaragua’s (unofficial) COVID death toll, economic pessimism, social media infodemic, pandemic "denialists"

Carlos Santamaria

2,707: Nicaragua's (unofficial) COVID-19 death toll has risen to 2,707, according to the Citizen Observatory, an independent body that disputes the official government figure of only 137 fatalities. Daniel Ortega — the country's authoritarian populist president and one of very few world leaders who initially refused to impose a lockdown — has been widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic.

67: A median 67 percent of people in 14 industrialized economies (mostly) governed by establishment leaders in Asia, Europe and North America believe the economic situation in their countries will be worse a year from now, according to a new Pew Research poll. South Koreans are the most concerned, while Danes and Swedes are the least worried about next year's economic outlook.

2,311: Researchers from Bangladesh, Australia, Thailand, and Japan identified a total of 2,311 reports of COVID-19 misinformation on social media between December 31 and April 5. Examples include conspiracy theories about the coronavirus contaminating poultry eggs, as well as that COVID-19 is a bioweapon created by Bill Gates to boost vaccine sales.

12: Although populist leaders are widely perceived to have downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, a new report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change argues that twelve out of 19 leaders identified as "populist" actually took the pandemic seriously, although some later reacted with illiberal policies. Those classified as "denialists" are the leaders of Belarus, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, and the US.

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This edition of Signal was written by Gabrielle Debinski, Alex Kliment, Carlos Santamaria, and Willis Sparks. Graphics and art by Gabriella Turrisi and Annie Gugliotta.

Today, we meet the youth activists who want to transform Thai politics, learn about Turkey's plans to censor social media, and dust off an old nuclear power plant in the Philippines.

Thank you for reading.

Carlos Santamaria

Young Thais take on the generals... and the King

Carlos Santamaria

Thousands of young people have taken to Thailand's streets in recent weeks to raise their voices against an increasingly unpopular government. Angry protests are a dime a dozen in the Land of Smiles, so why is this movement different?

First, the protestors are defying strict social-distancing rules under an ongoing nationwide state of emergency to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Second, they are facing off against the powerful Thai military, which seized power following a 2014 coup and rewrote the country's constitution to win a parliamentary majority following a carefully stage-managed election in 2019. The political dominance of the generals is now deeply entrenched.

Third, this youth movement is the first in a generation that has no ties to either the ultra-royalist, military-backed "yellow shirts" or the populist "red shirt" supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister deposed by a previous coup in 2006.

But most importantly, these protestors are breaking a taboo that will horrify many older Thais by (indirectly) questioning the authority of the King. It's is a game-changer for Thai politics — an assault on an institution that has remained the only national symbol of continuity and stability since 1932.

For this movement, the only way to restore Thailand's democracy and bring transformative change is to oust the entire existing power structure.

These activists are staging their protests in new ways. They mobilize via social media to organize flash mobs. When security forces gather to oppose them, they flash a three-finger salute of youth resistance popularized by the Hunger Games book and movie franchise.

The protesters have three demands. First, they want to scrap the constitution that has allowed the generals to manipulate the electoral system, for instance by disbanding the progressive Future Forward Party for accepting a loan from its own founder to finance the 2019 campaign. Although the party finished third in the vote, it was then barred from entering an anti-military coalition government by a creative interpretation of electoral law and the intervention of the Senate (which is entirely appointed by the military).

Second, they want the resignation of Prayuth Chan-ocha, the 2014 coup leader who decided to stay on as prime minister. And third, the military must stop going after peaceful pro-democracy activists, one of whom recently turned up dead in Cambodia.

The movement' s message is also focused on the future of young people in Thailand, where the economy is expected to shrink by more than 8 percent this year due to the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry.

Warnings that they have nothing to lose have even emboldened the protestors to target the (until now untouchable) monarchy. At rallies, demonstrators have waved signs calling to "abolish 112," the section in the Thai criminal code that punishes with 3 to 15 years behind bars any offense to the royal family. It's a painful indictment of King Vajiralongkorn… only four years after he succeeded his father, the much more widely revered King Adulyadej.

The former monarch was loved by most Thais, in part because he sometimes intervened in times of political unrest to ease tensions. The new King's unpopularity, heightened by news that he spent the coronavirus lockdown at a luxury resort in Germany, leaves him deeply dependent on the military (which explains why he forbade his own sister, Princess Ubolratana, from running for prime minister against Prayuth in 2019).

Change is not on the horizon. Not yet, at least. The military and monarch have more than enough muscle to beat back protests. But the willingness of members of this movement to cross lines that have never been crossed before signals a generational transition that could upend Thailand's power structure in years to come.

Advancing racial equality and economic opportunity today

Bank of America

Bank of America announced a $1 billion, four-year commitment of additional support to address economic and racial inequalities in our local communities that have been intensified by a global pandemic.

Learn more.

What We're Watching: Turkey censors social media, Jordanians set to vote, China hacks the Vatican

Gabrielle Debinski

Turkey suppresses social media: Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, likes to dominate the conversation. In power since 2003, he and his Justice and Development party have succeeded in tightening their grip on the media in recent years. More than 90 percent of the country's traditional media outlets are now controlled by companies with ties to the government. Turkey has also become one of the world's leading jailers of journalists. This media-control mission now extends into cyberspace. Since nationwide protests in 2013 and a coup attempt in 2016 threatened his hold on power, Erdogan has unleashed an army of trolls to attack critics and journalists. This week, Turkey's parliament passed legislation that forces social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to remove content the government doesn't like. To enforce the law, which takes effect on October 1, these companies are required to open offices, and store user data, inside Turkey. Failure to comply could lead to bandwidth cuts of up to 95 percent that slow their speed and make them unusable inside Turkey's borders.

Jordan's messy elections: After Jordan's King Abdullah II issued a royal decree calling for parliamentary elections, the polls were scheduled for November 10. Although the Jordanian parliament has legislative powers, many see it as a tokenistic body made up of business elites who play a secondary role to the country's powerful monarchy. (The King has the constitutional mandate to appoint governments and pass legislation.) Indeed, political chaos is currently the order of the day in Jordan, where the main opposition party, the Jordanian branch of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, was recently dissolved by Jordan's top court on the basis that the group had failed to "rectify its legal status." (Egypt has dubbed the group a terrorist organization.) The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, has said it will appeal the verdict. Whatever the outcome, Jordan's new parliament will be charged with the difficult task of steering the country's post-pandemic economic recovery as unemployment soars and GDP is projected to contract by at least 3.5 percent this year.

China targets... the Vatican: Amid ongoing negotiations between Beijing and the Vatican to try and resolve a host of issues, state-sponsored Chinese groups have hacked the Holy See's digital infrastructure, according to a private cybersecurity group. The hacks, which occurred over the past three months, were launched as the Vatican and Beijing prepare to meet in September to discuss the Catholic Church's operations in China, long a point of contention between the two sides. Beijing and the Vatican have been at loggerheads for years, dating as far back as the 1950s when the Holy See officially recognized Taiwan. But the relationship has grown increasingly tense recently because of freedom of religion restrictions in China — including the establishment of detention camps for Muslim Uighurs and other minorities — as well as China's security crackdown in Hong Kong, which the Vatican has condemned. Upcoming negotiations were meant to be a continuation of a 2018 agreement where the two sides notionally agreed to a joint process for selecting bishop candidates to the official church in China. We're watching to see how this revelation affects what was supposed to be the start of some sort of détente.

How politics can hurt COVID vaccine development

How could politics damage the process of developing and distributing a COVID-19 vaccine, and shake public confidence in the process? Find out from Ian Bremmer's GZERO World interview with former US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Watch the clip here.

Hard Numbers: US troops to exit Germany, American renters on the brink, Philippines' nuclear revival, Mumbai slums near herd immunity

Gabrielle Debinski

12,000: The Trump administration revealed on Wednesday that it plans to remove 12,000 American troops stationed in Germany, most of whom — 6,400 — will return to the US, while the remaining troops will be redeployed throughout Europe as part of NATO. Many analysts say that the move is emblematic of deteriorating German-US relations under the Trump presidency.

40: Over 40 percent of American renters could be evicted from their homes in the near term because they can't afford to pay their rent. This assessment comes as the federal government's economic relief boost, which has been providing relief for 25 million unemployed Americans, is set to end this week.

0: The Philippines is reviving plans to become the first Southeast Asian country with nuclear energy. The country already built a nuclear plant in the 1980s, but never turned it on, and since then the plant has produced zero watts of energy. Nuclear power is seen as a possible fix for the Philippines' dual problem of spotty supply and high electricity costs.

50: At least half of Mumbai's slum population — 50 percent — is believed to have been infected by COVID-19. Close to 57 percent of the city's slum-dwellers (from a random sample size of 7,000) have now tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, suggesting that these locales, where social distancing is impossible and the sanitation environment is poor, could be moving closer towards the herd immunity threshold.

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This edition of Signal was written by Carlos Santamaria, Gabrielle Debinski, and Willis Sparks. Spiritual counsel from Jezero, a 30-mile wide crater of a former lake on Mars where scientists hope to uncover secrets about ancient life on the Red Planet. NASA's new Mars rover, Perseverance, is scheduled to launch on July 30 and land at Jezero in February 2021.

Welcome to this special edition of Signal, sponsored by Citi Private Bank, where we'll look at how the COVID-19 crisis might permanently change the global balance of power. This edition is part of a new joint project between GZERO Media and Citi called "Living Beyond Borders."

After COVID: The United States vs China

Willis Sparks

China and the United States — geopolitical challenger and defending champion— were on a collision course long before COVID-19 took hold. The rivalry has been building for a generation and has intensified in the past three years.

China's President Xi Jinping grabbed Washington's attention in 2017 when he announced a "new era" in which China would move "closer to [global] center stage" and offer "a new option for other countries." That is, an alternative to US leadership in the world. President Donald Trump upped the ante with a declaration of trade war on China.

Then came the novel coronavirus, which began in China and has inflicted its worst damage in the US. Each government has pointed fingers at the other to deflect criticism of its own COVID failings.

How might the pandemic, and its aftermath, alter the rivalry between the world's two largest economies?

China's COVID initiative – In some ways, the coronavirus has boosted China's international image. Its success in containing the virus, the relative COVID chaos in the US and Europe, and China's willingness to help struggling governments, even in Europe, with critical medical supplies and cash, has allowed Beijing to claim a crisis leadership role that once fell to Washington. Meanwhile, China's economic growth looks to be less affected by the pandemic, as the IMF predicts Chinese GDP will continue to expand this year, even while America's contracts.

Continuing US advantages – China's rise doesn't imply a post-COVID US decline. In fact, though COVID has wreaked political and economic havoc in the United States, and government dysfunction is a large and growing problem, the US has lasting advantages that gives it staying power as a central international actor.

The US has long been the world's number one food exporter, and game-changing innovations in energy production have made the US the world's top oil producer. In addition, dollar dominance won't last forever, but today's governments still need greenbacks, allowing the US to continue borrowing as no other country can.

But the biggest post-COVID US advantage is the current dominance of its tech companies. That's why technology is the arena where the post-COVID US-China rivalry will become most intense.

The tech battlefield – Today, 11 of the world's 13 largest internet companies are US-based, and the US produces more of the tech startups that will drive innovation in the AI and other cutting-edge technologies that will soon dominate global economic development. COVID enhances those US advantages, because contact tracing, immunity passports, and remote work, enabled by new technologies that US companies have a jump on, are now more important.

Chinese companies, with priority backing from their government, are working in all these same areas and will continue to make progress, and China's government is going all in to make China a technology superpower over the next decade.

Which country will assume the lead in the race for 5G? Will one country gain an insurmountable advantage that allows its regulators to write the rules that govern these technologies? That will be the US-China battleground where the stakes are highest.

The election wildcard – The outcome of the US elections in November will also mark a turning point in US-China relations. On the one hand, no matter who wins, Washington and Beijing will remain on a collision course: opposition to some of China's trade practices and the ways it uses data to limit individual freedom are rare issues on which Democrats and Republicans agree. And the US public's distrust of China is at its highest level since polling on the issue began 15 years ago.

If President Trump wins re-election, he's likely to continue the current aggressive unilateral US approach on trade and intellectual property questions. But a President Biden would likely be much more inclined to coordinate pressure on China with likeminded traditional allies in Europe and Asia. That's why Chinese officials may have more to fear from Biden's alliance-building than from Trump's more impulsive go-it-alone approach. If so, a Biden win might ease the tone of the rivalry in the near-term, but broaden and deepen its substance over time.

The Graphic Truth

Gabrielle Debinski

Lockdowns and social distancing restrictions have brought much of the global economy to a halt over the past few months, causing unprecedented levels of joblessness and throwing international commerce into disarray. As the virus continued to spread throughout the first quarter of the year (there are now cases in at least 188 countries and territories) the IMF updated its original growth forecast for 2020, and the predictions are grim. The world's largest economies – China, the US and the Euro area – are set to experience massive year-on-year contraction. But there's a silver lining: The IMF says that there are signs of a promising economic recovery for these economic regions in 2021. Here's a look at the numbers.

No Ordinary Recession, No Ordinary Recovery

Citi Private Bank

As a new economic and market cycle gets underway, we release our Mid-Year Outlook, 'From Fear to Prosperity: Investing in a New Economic Cycle'.

We expect a more rapid rebound than many others do. But just as the COVID-19 collapse is no ordinary recession, this will be no ordinary recovery. We believe the new cycle calls for a new approach to investing. While beaten-down bargains are less widespread, we identify markets with greater rebound potential. We also update long-term asset class return estimates and outline important allocation shifts needed to seek diversification in today's world of very low interest rates.

Read the full report, learn more about key themes in the report, and view related videos.

The Graphic Truth

Gabrielle Debinski

The global race is on to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. While it usually takes many years to develop and widely distribute vaccines, scientists around the world are now trying to get one ready within the next year — an unprecedented time frame. The race has generated fierce competition among countries, as everyone wants to develop a vaccine on their home turf first, not only for prestige, but also to get their citizens at the front of the line for the shots when they are available. Still, while the scientific world is now rife with geopolitical rivalries over the COVID-19 vaccine, there's also a lot of international collaboration going on behind the scenes. Here's a look at the vaccines currently in Phase II of the clinical trial process, meaning they are being tested on hundreds of people of various age groups to determine their effectiveness and safety. If they pass this stage they move to wider testing in Phase III, the final step before approval.

GZERO World Podcast: The upside after coronavirus

The world is in crisis right now. Global health experts are racing to end the worst pandemic in more than a century, while governments and economists are scrambling to stabilize markets and get industries back to work again. But is there room for optimism about the future?

In this special edition of the GZERO World podcast, produced in partnership with Citi Private Bank, Eurasia Group strategy head Meredith Sumpter moderates a chat with Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer and Citi Private Bank's Chief Investment Officer David Bailin. If political and financial leaders make the right decisions, they say, 2020 could mark a major turning point in addressing the challenges of inequality, sustainability, and a fragmenting world order. Listen to the podcast here.

What We're Watching: How the pandemic affects Europe, emerging markets, and populist leaders

Alex Kliment

How does Europe fit in? Even before the pandemic struck, Europe was struggling to redefine its role in a world where the US is a more fickle ally and China is a more assertive challenger. In particular, Brussels has been trying to style itself as a global leader in the responsible regulation of tech companies. In some ways, the pandemic has boosted those ambitions: as governments use contact tracing apps and facial recognition to help stop the spread, Brussels regulators are paying close attention. They're also cracking down on misinformation about the coronavirus. But first the EU has a bigger challenge to address. Faced with the worst economic crisis in its history, it has to prove to a rising chorus of (euro)skeptics that it is capable of cushioning the blow, and equitably rebooting economic growth across the Union. The European Commission, fearing an economic and even political fragmentation of the bloc, has unveiled an unprecedented 750 billion euro coronavirus rescue plan -- but not all member states are in favor.

Emerging markets on the ropes: While the world's largest economies duke it out for power in the post-pandemic world, many of the world's developing economies will still be digging out of the most severe shock they have experienced in generations. Faced with a quadruple hit of local economic shutdowns, collapsing demand for their exports, evaporating remittance flows, and vanishing tourism, many cash-strapped and highly-indebted developing economies are on the ropes. Poverty rates are set to rise significantly – the UN warns that as many as 500 million people could plunge below the poverty line as a result of the pandemic. In Latin America alone, a quarter of the 100 million people who came out of poverty over the past twenty years could fall right back. What's more, as the pandemic accelerates international firms' embrace of automation – robots don't get sick and can work wherever you ask them to – emerging markets that depend on manufactured exports could see millions of jobs vanish permanently. In all, the first two decades of the 21st century saw a rapid rise in the economic clout and living standards of lower-income countries. The next decade will be spent largely picking up the post-pandemic pieces.

How populism fares in all of this: One of the major trends in global politics in recent years has been the rise of populist nationalists who swept to power on promises to break the old political establishment, reverse the tide of globalization, and do more to put their countries "first." So how are they doing amid the pandemic? In some cases their innate distrust of traditional experts and weakening of state institutions has contributed to the spread of the disease: there's a reason that the US and Brazil have the two highest case counts and are among the leaders in deaths per 100,000 people. But the spread of a deadly disease across borders is also perfect fodder for leaders – like, say, Hungary's Viktor Orban, or the Law and Justice party in Poland – who argue that less economic and cultural integration is safer for everyone. How Poland's current leaders fare in an upcoming election may be a bellwether. More broadly, populism grows easily in situations of economic crisis and income inequality. The pandemic has served up both in spades. We are watching to see where populists are able to capitalize.

Hard Numbers: Vietnam on the rise, China delays developing countries' debt, Americans wary of Chinese power, European woes

Gabrielle Debinski

5: At a time when most national economies are reeling, one country is faring very well. After responding to the pandemic early and quickly, Vietnam, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, has recorded no deaths from COVID-19 and is even slated to grow by 5 percent this year. Meanwhile, large economies like the US, Japan, and Australia have officially entered recessions.

77: The Chinese government has agreed to temporarily delay debt repayment for at least 77 developing countries as part of a Group of 20 nations initiative aimed at alleviating low-income countries' economic pain amid the pandemic. This is on top of an earlier commitment by President Xi Jinping to give low-income countries around $2 billion to help fight the pandemic and recover afterwards. Details about the allocation of that money, however, are still murky.

50: Exactly half of Americans – 50 percent – believe that China's international standing will wane after the pandemic as a result of its dodgy handling of the initial outbreak, according to a new Pew study. Many Americans (62 percent) now agree with the statement that Chinese power is a major threat to US interests, a 14 point increase since the question was last posed in 2018.

14: The pandemic's impact on growth will be biggest in Europe, according to the OECD, a group of advanced countries. Spain, France, Italy and the UK will suffer most, with GDP in each contracting by at least 14 percent from the previous year. That's a collapse nearly twice as big as the projection for the global economy, which is set to shrink by 7.6 percent this year.

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram. If a friend sent you this email, you can subscribe here.

This edition of Signal was written by Willis Sparks, Gabrielle Debinski, and Alex Kliment. The graphics were made by Ari Winkleman and Gabriella Turrisi. Spiritual counsel from a duck in New Zealand that once drank a beer and fought a dog.


Hi there,

Today, we'll look beyond the Camp David Trump-Taliban meeting controversy to update you on what's actually happening inside Afghanistan, peek at how tech is shaping the Hong Kong protests, warily welcome a breakthrough in Ukraine-Russia tensions, and look ahead to the next Brexit lunacy.

As a bonus: what can today's tech firms learn from Chernobyl? I sat down with Microsoft president Brad Smith to find out.

Love us, hate us, let us know. And thanks for reading.

-Alex Kliment (@saosasha)

No Peace for Afghanistan

Gabrielle Debinski

As the US-led mission in Afghanistan nears its nineteenth year, we have now reached a point where a child born on this date in 2001 — before the attacks of 9/11 — is old enough to be deployed there. Over the weekend, President Trump scuttled months-long negotiations with the Taliban that were meant to end the longest war in America's history.

While that decision provoked the usual storm of partisan recriminations in Washington, Afghanistan's political, social, and economic fabric continues to deteriorate. Consider that Afghanistan recently surpassed Syria as the single most violent country in the world.

With peace talks in limbo and the country's future uncertain, here's a look at what's happening in Afghanistan today.

A political patchwork — Afghanistan's political scene is fractious and unstable. Five years ago, after an inconclusive presidential election the US backed a power sharing deal between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who holds the post of chief executive. Crippled by tribal divisions and endemic corruption, Afghanistan's unity government has failed to govern effectively. It controls less than half of the country's districts.

The Taliban, meanwhile, have staged a resurgence in recent years – they now control more land than at any point since before the US invasion in 2001. Their control of the lucrative opium trade nets them more than a billion dollars a year. Their gunmen and suicide bombers have killed hundreds of ordinary Afghans in recent years. They have refused to negotiate directly with the Kabul government, which they consider a puppet of Washington. They will speak only to the US, and only about one thing: conditions for the withdrawal of US troops. A deal on that score seemed near until this weekend.

An economy in shambles — Violence and corruption have sapped the promise of Afghanistan's economy. For years, warlords and criminal networks have squandered foreign aid intended to stimulate businesses and jobs. For the first time, unemployment for youth has topped 40 percent, the bleakest mark on record, according to a new Gallup poll. As more people struggle to get by day-to-day — 90% of Afghans recorded experiencing financial hardship, the highest in the world last year—a destructive cycle of poverty and violence has become a key part of the Afghan experience.

Afghanistan, the worst place to be a woman The US-led ouster of the Taliban after 2001 opened up new freedoms for women, who, under Taliban control, were barred from going to school or working, and were routinely stoned for transgressions like attempting to flee forced marriage. More women have enrolled in universities and some men have been prosecuted for domestic violence, long an epidemic in Afghanistan's deeply patriarchal society. Still, eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate and three quarters of its female population are victims of forced marriage.

What's next? — Long delayed presidential elections are scheduled for later this month. The Taliban oppose the ballot, and they are likely to carry out a spate of attacks on elections, as they've done in the past. The US, meanwhile, has recalled its chief negotiator with the group. Afghans, weary after years of war, are bracing for a fresh surge in violence.

Graphic Truth: Afghanistan Up For Grabs

Ari Winkleman

Following President Trump's last-minute decision to scuttle Afghanistan peace talks between the US and the Taliban, the country's political future is more uncertain than ever. The US-backed government in Kabul controls less than half of the country's districts. The rest are controlled or actively contested by Taliban fighters or warlords. Here is a map of who controls what in a country that is still very much up for grabs.

What Chernobyl Can Teach Tech: a chat with Microsoft’s Brad Smith

New technologies that thrive on data have brought great promise and benefits to our lives. But they also pose new threats to our privacy, our jobs, our national security, and even to our democracies.

Few people are as keenly attuned to these challenges or as involved in trying to sort them out as Brad Smith, president of Microsoft and author, with Microsoft's senior director Carol Ann Brown, of the new book Tools and Weapons: the promise and peril of the digital age.

GZERO's Alex Kliment sat down with him recently to talk about the challenges that tech poses to our societies and what, if anything, can be done to address them. We discussed the prospect of a new iron curtain dividing the pacific, the role of government in regulating tech, and what horses can teach us about the challenges of artificial intelligence.

Check an edited transcript of the interview here, or listen to it in podcast form here. Note that Microsoft is a sponsor of GZERO Media content.

What We’re Watching: Hong Kong Apps, Russia-Ukraine Prisoner Swap, Brexit by the Letter


Brexit by the Letter? Britain's parliament is now suspended ("prorogued") for five weeks. Opposition MPs have made clear they won't give PM Boris Johnson the elections he wants until a law is implemented that blocks the potential for a no-deal Brexit. They've also voted to force Johnson to ask the EU for an extension of the October 31 Brexit deadline. What spectacular political gymnastics will Johnson conjure up next to avoid complying with this? Will he send the required letter asking the EU for that extension, and then send another that says he was joking? Send the letter, but call on a sympathetic EU government to veto the extension request? Call a vote of no-confidence in his own government to force elections? Resign? All these options are under discussion in the British press. And now that colo(u)rful Commons Speaker John Bercow vows to leave his post on October 31, will he pursue a career as a wrestling referee?

Hong Kong Crowdsourced Protest Maps Violent protests and police crackdowns continued this weekend despite chief executive Carrie Lam's decision to withdraw the extradition bill that started it all. Thousands of activists gathered outside the US embassy Sunday to sing the Star Spangled Banner and ask for American help to "liberate" their city, while on Monday students formed human chains to support calls for a more accountable government. The basic problem remains: the protesters want more self-rule than China's hardline President Xi Jinping is willing to deliver. We're also watching how technology is quite literally shaping the protests: activists have developed real-time crowd-sourced maps that indicate where the police are, along with an amazing phone-to-phone "ripple" transmission system that is meant to overcome slow cellular data speeds. Check out Quartz's feature on it here.

Russia and Ukraine Exchange Prisoners — Russia and Ukraine exchanged dozens of prisoners this weekend in a move that European and American leaders hailed as a step toward ending the five-year long conflict over eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The freed prisoners include 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by the Russian Navy in a clash last fall, a Ukrainian filmmaker accused by Moscow of terrorism, and a Russian citizen who was involved in the separatists' downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014. We are watching to see if this is really, as President Trump says, a "first giant step towards peace." We are skeptical, because the basic problem of the Ukraine conflict is intractable: Russia wants Kyiv to give the Russian-backed eastern provinces a measure of influence over Ukraine's foreign policy, but that's not something Ukraine's parliament can agree to. And forget about Russia ever giving back Crimea.

What We're Ignoring

Saudi Arabia's Bid to Influence the Influencers Over the past few months Saudi Arabia has tried to bleach the stain left by allegations that its agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. One approach has been to fly Western Instagram influencers to the kingdom to show their followers how progressive and cool it is to visit (there are reports that Riyadh will begin issuing tourist visas for the first time later this month.) There are many reasons to want to visit Saudi Arabia – we'd love to see in person how Crown Prince Mohamed is cautiously liberalizing some areas of society while also ruthlessly crushing dissent. But the chance to mingle with clueless Western "influencers" like Aggie Lal posing in orientalist fantasy getups isn't one of them.

Hard Numbers: A Magnificent Seven Rescue for the Amazon?

56: In May, President Trump threatened to impose hefty tariffs on Mexican imports if that country's government didn't act to slow the flow of migrants making their way north. Mexico has reported a 56 percent decline in undocumented migrants crossing into the US since then.

600: Nigeria says it will send 600 South Africans back to their country of origin amid growing tensions between the two countries concerning xenophobic riots that took place in Johannesburg last week.

7: As thousands of fires continue to rage across the Amazon rainforest, seven South American countries with Amazon territory have signed a deal to protect it. Brazil has signed it, but will President Jair Bolsonaro really change his policy of loosening restrictions on turning the forest into farmland?

2.1 million: That Iranian oil tanker that British marines recently detained (and then released) under suspicion it was heading to Syria in violation of EU sanctions has been spotted by a drone . . . off the coast of Syria. The vessel is thought to have sold 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil to that country.

This edition of Signal was written by Alex Kliment and Gabrielle Debinski, with Willis Sparks. The graphic was made by Ari Winkleman. Editorial support from Tyler Borchers. Spiritual counsel from an accordion player at the Duroc metro station in Paris.

14,000: A sprawling NYT report says more than 128,000 people have disappeared into Syria's government prison system, where torture, rape, and summary executions are rampant, since the start of the civil war in 2011. Some 14,000 people are believed to have been tortured to death, with one officer proudly calling himself "Hitler."

2/3: Cuba, hit by tighter US sanctions and shrinking imports of cheap oil from Venezuela, has returned to a policy of rationing basic foodstuffs. The state-controlled economy imports roughly two-thirds of what its 11 million citizens eat, at an annual bill of $2 billion.

2.8 billion: Since 2016, Facebook has deleted some 2.8 billion "fake" accounts as part of a Whack-A-Mole style effort to stamp out disinformation campaigns designed to mess with elections. The tech giant's next big test on this score is the European Parliamentary election later this month.

815,000: The tariffs that the Trump administration imposed on imported washing machines last year helped to create nearly 2,000 new jobs in the United States, at a cost to consumers of more than $815,000 per job created, according to a University of Chicago study. #TradeoffsOfTrade

Macron takes the stage – France's embattled President Emmanuel Macron has spent a few weeks listening to the French people, and now he's set to speak about what he's learned. In a speech tomorrow, Macron will unveil several policy proposals – including tax cuts and measures to increase government accountability – meant as a response to the issues of inequality and the urban-rural divide that gave rise to the Yellow Vests protest movement. The speech, initially planned for last week, was postponed when the Notre-Dame cathedral went up in flames. It will be the most politically significant moment of Macron's flagging presidency. Can he turn things around?

The Inglorious Bustards of Pakistan – Since the 1970s, wealthy Gulf Arab falconers have flocked to Pakistan to hunt a fiercely startled looking bird called the MacQueen's Bustard, whose flesh is considered an aphrodisiac. Conservationists say overhunting has put the species in danger, and some Pakistanis have objected for years to foreigners plundering their natural riches. But Pakistan not only makes good money selling the hunting licenses, the cash-strapped country is also dependent financially on Saudi Arabia, whose princes are avid falconers. We're watching, hawk-eyed, to see if Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan is willing to ruffle Riyadh's feathers over this. We doubt it.

What We're Ignoring: A Zero Summit

The Putin-Kim Summit – Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to meet North Korea's Kim Jong-un for the first time at the Russian port city of Vladivostok, not far from the border between their two countries, later this month. We expect little of substance to come from this. North Korea has nothing that Russia needs and can't pay a decent price for anything the Russians would sell. And saddled with sanctions of its own, Russia is unlikely to serve Kim a free lunch to revive his economy. Both men can use the meeting to enhance their international prestige, and Putin certainly loves to pique Washington, but that's about it.

Steve Bannon's "Gladiator" School – Former Trump advisor and poster boy for the slovenly, anti-globalist set Steve Bannon has leased a 13th century Italian monastery in Italy for 19 years (!) to serve as an academy to train populists. Bannon calls it a "gladiator school for culture warriors" that can "save Western civilization." Because nothing says anti-elitist friend of the working man like an academy housed within an Italian monastery. The school's formal name is the Academy for the Judeo-Christian West. We're ignoring this story because we're skeptical that Europeans need an American to explain populism to them, but the film version of this could be spectacular.


More Brexit Bewilderment – Following yesterday's parliamentary votes, which failed to approve any alternative to Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit plan, she is now weighing whether to try and get it through one last time. Although Parliament has already soundly rejected it three times, it now looks to be the least tumultuous path forward, and a fourth vote could be held by the end of the week. Another round of indicative votes is also expected in Parliament tomorrow. If both votes fail, new elections or a second referendum might be the only way to break Britain's bewildering political paralysis. But the clock is ticking: the UK has only until April 12 to decide what it wants to do. If it doesn't, the EU has to either give London even more time to sort things out, or allow the UK to careen out of the Union without any deal on future economic ties.

Bouteflika's next/last move – Oil-rich Algeria's severely disabled 82-year-old president has said he will step down before his term ends later this month, responding to weeks of protests that began when he announced he would seek a fifth-straight term in office. Will the early resignation quell the protests? A lot will depend on whether Bouteflika's exit opens the way to a more accountable political system or whether, as many fear, it will merely pave the way for military brass and other cronies around Bouteflika to make cosmetic changes that do little to address the country's problems. We aren't optimistic, but we are watching....


Rational explanations for Garfields on the beach – For thirty years, novelty telephones shaped like the grumpy cartoon cat Garfield (one of your author's Saturday morning favorites as a child) have been washing up on a beach in Northwestern France. No one knew why until volunteers cleaning the beach recently discovered that the feline phones were washing out of a shipping container that had fallen off a boat in the 1980s and become lodged in a nearby sea cave. Ok, we understand that shipping companies lose an average of 1,500 containers on the high seas every year and that this is a rational explanation, but we were really hoping there was some larger supernatural force that might send thousands of Nermal washing up in Plymouth, England to antagonize Garfield from across the channel

Irrational explanations for the Rise of Nazism – One of Brazilian President JairBolsonaro's favorite political gurus is a 71-year-old, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, autodidact philosopher from Brazil who lives in Virginia. Olavo de Carvalho's eccentric broadsides against "the left" and "globalists" are immensely popular with the Brazilian far right, and also with Steve Bannon (remember him?). But Mr. Carvalho's ideas sometimes go beyond the eccentric into the flat out, well, crazy: this weekend he tweeted that Stalin had in fact created Nazism as part of a broader plan to subjugate Eastern Europe. While we are ignoring the historical illiteracy of this suggestion, we are paying attention to what Carvalho says, because he exerts huge influence over Brazil's education policy, which Bolsonaro has made a point of reshaping since the moment he won Brazil's presidential election late last year.

627 million: Brexit has cost the United Kingdom an estimated $627 million in lost economic output per week since the 2016 referendum, according to Goldman Sachs.

9: Only 9 percent of Ukrainians say they have confidence in their government, compared to 91 percent who see it as corrupt, according to Gallup. Why? Well, for starters, nearly four in 10 adults report not having enough money for food or shelter.

94: A new report from the UN estimates that 94 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty today. Once South America's wealthiest country, Venezuela is experiencing one of the worst economic collapses ever recorded.

40: Just over a week after the release of the preliminary findings of the Mueller report, 40 percent of Americans believe it hasn't cleared the president of wrongdoing, while 29 percent believe it has.