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.
A few bleak facts:
- Of the 10 countries with the highest number of current COVID deaths per capita in the week before July 18, three of the top six are in Africa. That includes Namibia at #1, Tunisia at #2, and South Africa at #6.
- Last week, recorded COVID deaths in Africa jumped 40 percent from the previous week.
- Just 1 percent of Africa's 1.3 billion people are fully vaccinated. African governments will be very lucky if that number reaches 10 percent by the end of 2021.
- African countries were slated to receive many more AstraZeneca vaccine doses from India. That was before India became a global COVID hotspot.
- Of 77.6 million doses that the COVAX facility, a vaccine-sharing initiative, has allocated to African countries, fewer than 16 million had arrived in Africa by July 7.
There are many explanations for Africa's new COVID troubles. Healthcare facilities are below international standards in many of Africa's 54 countries. Governments don't have the bureaucracies to roll out treatments and vaccine doses as efficiently as in wealthier parts of the world. Poor infrastructure in some countries compounds that problem.
But the G-Zero world disorder plays a role here too. G-Zero is a term coined by our boss, Ian Bremmer, to describe an "every nation for itself" approach to global politics that has become the dominant trend in today's world.
It's not that wealthy countries have done nothing to help Africa. Without support from the US, EU, and other rich countries, COVAX wouldn't exist to provide vaccines to anyone. But while it's completely understandable that American and European leaders want to vaccinate Americans and Europeans first, the scale of vaccine selfishness has become a topic of hot debate.
Here's your key data point: According to One.org, an activist organization, "The world's richest countries could vaccinate their entire populations and still have over 1.9 billion doses to share — enough to vaccinate the entire adult population of Africa."
As it is, healthy young people in the US and Europe will be vaccinated months before many frontline healthcare workers, elderly people, and people with serious underlying medical conditions in Africa.
Some may see this as a sad but understandable reality. Wealthier nations and people have always enjoyed advantages while the poor suffer what they must. But there are two obvious responses to that.
First, selfishness can be a matter of degree. It's one thing to argue that "my people must be vaccinated first." It's quite another to horde excess supplies that might never be used and to consider booster shots for young healthy people in one country while frontline health workers in other countries can't even get their very first vaccine dose.
Second, every time COVID is transmitted from one person to another, it mutates. Enough mutations create variants — like the delta variant that has caused COVID to rise not only in Africa, but also in the United States and Europe. Leave enough people unvaccinated and we sharply increase the risk that future variants — maybe more transmissible and more lethal than the now prevalent delta variant — will be infecting vaccinated people everywhere.
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?
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.
Both sides are probably correct on this. So the Democrats can use this as an opportunity to keep the Jan. 6 in the media and to keep Republicans connected to the riot at the Capitol. The Republicans, in turn, are going to use this to try to expand the scope and talk about all kinds of things that are really beyond strictly focusing on Jan. 6. So, it seems unlikely there's going to be a lot of real value that comes out of this commission, but you do have members like Liz Cheney who will be participating, who say they want to get to the bottom of what happened beyond President Trump's involvement.
Progress on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, is that really possible?
So this week, the Senate actually voted down, moving to proceed to a bipartisan infrastructure bill. And strangely, that may be the first sign that the bipartisan infrastructure bill could actually happen. Republicans voted against moving to the bill, opening debate on it, because they didn't have the text yet and they say it wasn't ready. The vote lost; it didn't get the 60 votes needed to proceed. But the 22 members, Republicans and Democrats, who are working on a bipartisan compromise, since the vote happened, have said they've made significant progress and are planning to try again early next week.They need to try to cut a deal over the weekend and produce legislative text, and in the legislative text is where you're going to find a lot of things that could potentially trip up this bill. Because no other members have seen what's in this yet, there could be policy riders that people don't like, and the scores that come out of the Congressional scorekeepers telling everybody how much money to spend and how much revenue it raises may not add up. So there's still a lot that can go wrong between now and next week, but strangely, this negative vote was the first step towards actually getting something done this year on infrastructure.
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.
Today we are taking our Red Pen, first time we're doing this, through recent op-ed by veteran columnist and best-selling author David Brooks of The New York Times.
The title of the piece is "The American Identity Crisis," and it focuses on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Coming to a theater not so near you real soon. And how it represents a double standard that Brooks believes America is experiencing—protecting liberal and progressive values at home (and many would argue with that point alone by the way) while abandoning allies in Afghanistan and doing little to stop the rise of autocrats elsewhere.
Let's get out the Red Pen.
First, Brooks laments that in, quote, "Iraq and Afghanistan, America lost faith in itself and its global role—like a pitcher who has been shelled and no longer has confidence in his own stuff."
That's right, but I'd argue the roots of this lost confidence go back a lot further. It was after the Vietnam War that Americans seriously began to question their ability to transform the world. And let's also remember the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia back in 1993, reinforced that sentiment: President Bill Clinton was so shell-shocked that he refused to intervene in Rwanda during that country's genocide.
Next, Brooks writes that the "two-decade strategy of taking the fight to the terrorists, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, has meant that global terrorism is no longer seen as a major concern in daily American life."
I'd say it's no longer seen that way because it's no longer a daily concern in terms of actions taken at home. US intelligence and law enforcement officials have spent vast sums over the past 20 years in the United States and on borders to protect the American people. If anything, US interventions abroad have made Americans less safe, not more: Exhibit A, destabilizing Iraq fostered the rise of the Islamic State, which continues to wreak havoc in and beyond the Middle East.
Brooks also writes that there's "a strong possibility" that the US withdraw from Afghanistan "will produce a strategic setback and a humanitarian disaster."
Yes, a humanitarian disaster if the Taliban does take over, and I think that's likely—women and ethnic minorities will suffer. But that was already looking pretty likely—in fact, the Biden policy review expected that the Taliban was likely to take over the course of the Biden administration, absent a troop surge, and nobody thought that that was politically feasible. And a strategic setback for the United States? Well, that's a harder one to argue. I mean, a Taliban-led Afghanistan might be a thorn in Biden's side but it's not going to derail his top foreign policy priority by far, which is managing over surging China. And on that issue, by the way, that's a key reason that Beijing wants the Americans to stay in Afghanistan because the Chinese government knows that they're going to end up supporting the Taliban government while facing blow back from regional warlords in Afghanistan. That doesn't work.
You still with me? I've got a couple more points to go and still have a little red ink. Brooks writes that the United States is competing against countries like China and Russia "in an economic, cultural, intellectual, and political contest all at once—A struggle between the forces of progressive modernity and reaction."
Now, if values are so important to US foreign policy, why is Washington on such good terms with Egypt or Saudi Arabia, whose positions on LGBTQ and women's rights are anything but progressive. Some in the United States do want to advance liberal values the world over, but the US doesn't have either the capacity or the inclination to do so everywhere. Plus, the struggle between the United States and China, and with Russia to a lesser extent, is less about exporting culture than about shaping the global order.
And finally, Brooks says "to fight Trumpian authoritarianism at home, we have to fight the more venomous brands of authoritarianism that thrive around the world. That means staying on the field."
Now the United States should remain an active player in global affairs, I certainly agree with that. But "staying on the field" does not equal military intervention. Should the United States send forces into Myanmar as the country edges closer to becoming a failed state? I mean, how about Haiti, right in American backyard, following the president's assassination in his home. The United States can't afford to use military force whenever something goes wrong all over the world. There are plenty of ways to advance democracy—such as sending humanitarian aid and establishing cultural changes—without becoming the world's sheriff. Given how Afghanistan, Iraq, and other recent US military interventions have turned out, these soft power tools deserve a lot more attention.
So there you have it. That's your Red Pen for today. We'll see you again soon. In the meantime, stay cool in the dog days of summer. Moose told me to let you know that. Be good. Talk to you soon.
- The Graphic Truth: Who controls Afghanistan? - GZERO Media ›
- Afghanistan's neighbors on edge - GZERO Media ›
- As the US withdraws from Afghanistan all eyes are on Pakistan ... ›
- Ben Rhodes: US can't say it defends democracy and then cozy up to ... ›
- The GOP siding with Trump is hardly a threat to democracy - GZERO ... ›
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.
Why has Suga been so intent on going forward with the Olympics?
For starters, Japan has already postponed the Games once; they were supposed to take place last summer. Postponing them again — or even cancelling them — would be demoralizing, especially if neighboring China manages to execute a successful Winter Olympics this coming February.
Suga had hoped that the Games would be a showcase of Japan's resilience in the face of tragedies — not only the pandemic that continues to ravage the world, but also the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident) that devasted Fukushima a decade earlier. He has gradually had to scale back his ambitions for the Games, which are probably far more modest now than they were even a month earlier.
Inertia is also at work. Cancelling the Games now could unleash a bitter legal dispute between the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee. It would also anger the 60 or so Japanese corporate sponsors that have poured $3 billion into the event. And it would probably do little to appease Suga's political opponents and the broader public, who would ask why he did not pull the plug earlier in order to focus instead on accelerating Japan's sluggish vaccination campaign. Just over a fifth of the population is fully inoculated.
Finally, there is plain bad luck. Suga likely predicted that the global health landscape would be sufficiently benign by now to permit an energized, well-attended Olympics. But studies suggest that the delta variant now coursing through vast stretches of the developing world may be twice as transmissible as the original strain of the coronavirus.
The government has put in place a state of emergency. What will it mean for the Games?
Assuming they take place (the chief of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee has not ruled out the possibility of a last-minute cancellation), these Olympics will be the first in history to occur without spectators, significantly limiting the extent to which Japan will be able to convey the sense of a well-executed global spectacle.
IOC President Thomas Bach declared on July 15th that the Games would be "the most restrictive sports event ever in the world," claiming that "the risk for the other residents of the Olympic village and risk for the Japanese people is zero." But given that more than 90 athletes and officials have already tested positive for COVID, the organizers are likely to enforce more stringent protocols to preempt a sustained outbreak. Bach says that 85 percent of those living in the Olympic Village (some 11,000 athletes and 7,000 officials) are either vaccinated or immune. He and his colleagues may well subject the remaining 15 percent to more rigorous monitoring and more frequent testing.
What are the risks for Suga?
The most obvious risk is that a COVID outbreak in the Olympic Village could force Suga to cancel the Games. The bigger risk is that the outbreak moves beyond the confines of the Olympics and ends up intensifying Japan's own fight against the coronavirus, compelling him to impose additional restrictions that hurt the economy and further inflame public opinion. Such a scenario would likely open him up to challengers from within his own Liberal Democratic Party.
Thus far Japan has fared far better than other advanced industrial democracies — it has recorded roughly 853,000 infections and 15,000 deaths (the figures for fellow G7 member Germany, by contrast, are approximately 3.76 million and 91,500). But with approval for his cabinet having plummeted to a record-low 31 percent, he can ill-afford to dismiss the possibility of another deeply unpopular round of lockdowns or coronavirus restrictions — particularly if they result from his decision to hold an Olympics that few Japanese wanted.
Are there potential rewards?
There are three big ifs: if there is no serious COVID outbreak at the Games, if they prove not to be a super-spreader event once the 18,000 athletes and officials return to their native countries, and if the participants largely go home proud and happy, Suga will be able to say that he pulled off an extraordinary feat in the most trying of circumstances and that he kept his promise to the Japanese people to hold a successful event.
Still, the Olympics will bring few economic benefits to Japan: the government spent over $7 billion on facilities that will be largely empty since no spectators will be allowed, and the hotel industry is grappling with more than 500,000 cancelled reservations.
What are the stakes for Suga of Olympic success or failure?
While failure would be unlikely to imperil the LDP's chances in the general election this fall — the opposition is too fractured — it could certainly jeopardize Suga's leadership of the party.
How vulnerable is Suga to a party revolt?
To stave off challengers, Suga has relied on strong support from his predecessor and former boss, Shinzo Abe. It was Abe, after all, who secured Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and believed that a successful Games could burnish his legacy. Failure could undercut both Suga and arguably his most important backer, leaving the prime minister on shaky political ground.
What We're Watching: YouTube snuffs Bolsonaro, Israel probes Pegasus, China rejects COVID inquiry (again)
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?
Israel establishes Pegasus probe: The Israeli government has set up a committee to probe recent allegations that an Israeli tech firm's surveillance software, called Pegasus, was licensed to foreign governments, and then used to spy on journalists, dissidents, and human rights activists. Seventeen media companies joined forces to cover this alleged cyber breach. NSO, the Israeli tech firm that licenses Pegasus, says it exports its products to 45 countries with approval from the Israeli government. In an interview after the alleged breach, NSO's CEO said that if the allegations of hacking are true "it is something we will not stand as a company," and claimed there was no link between the 50,000 leaked numbers and the company. NSO also says it welcomes a transparent probe that will clear the company's name. However, the group has not released any more information on its contractual agreements with various governments, like Saudi Arabia, which stands accused of human rights abuses.
China rejects another COVID origins probe: Barely five months ago, China thought it was finally done with probing the origins of the coronavirus, after a joint investigation with the World Health Organization reached the conclusion that, as the Chinese have always said, the virus most likely leaped from bats to humans, via another animal at a Wuhan wet market. Now, with US intelligence looking into the possibility that COVID may have leaked directly from a Wuhan lab — which most scientists say is less likely — Beijing doesn't want to revisit the issue again. The Chinese have turned down a WHO request for another probe, which is itself a big flashpoint in already-frosty US-China ties: the Americans say the Chinese have never been transparent about what happened in the early days of the pandemic, while the Chinese say the Americans only seek to blame China for political reasons. Whichever side you are one, it's important to clarify that a fresh investigation would aim only to ascertain whether the lab leak theory merits further study at all -- it would not reach any conclusions on its own.
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...
1. Once all the costs of the pandemic are computed, Tokyo 2020 could become the costliest Games of all time. But, which Olympics have been the most expensive to date?
A. Sochi 2014
B. Rio de Janeiro 2016
C. London 2012
2. It's not the first time that a virus has threatened the Games. In 2016, the Brazilian government resisted strong pressure to cancel the Rio de Janeiro Olympics over...
3. US sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson will not compete in Tokyo because of a one-month suspension for cannabis use. The last athlete to test positive for the drug — which is banned despite not being performance-enhancing — at the Olympics was from this country:
4. Tokyo won its first bid to host the Games in 1940. Why was it nixed?
A. The IOC didn't accept sumo wrestling
B. World War II
C. Japan invaded China
5. Russian athletes will compete in Tokyo under what name?
B. No name, using the Olympic flag
6. For Tokyo 2020, the IOC has (somewhat) relaxed its longtime ban on political protests at the Games, which a bunch of athletes ignored throughout history — including the two US runners who in 1968 raised their fists during an awards ceremony to protest racial segregation in America. That same year, a gymnast from which country also defied the ban by turning her head away from the Soviet flag?
7. Tokyo 2020 medals will be made of...
A. Gold, silver, and bronze — duh
B. Fallen scales from Godzilla's tail
C. Recycled precious metals from electronic devices
8. A Japanese woman recently went viral for doing what to protest Tokyo holding the Olympics amid the pandemic?
A. Refusing to politely bow to visiting government officials
B. Spanking a member of Japan's Olympic Committee with an onsen paddle
C. Squirting water at the flame of the Olympic Torch when it passed through her hometown
9. Which of the Guineas of Africa has reversed its decision to pull out of Tokyo due to COVID?
A. Equatorial Guinea
10. Speaking of boycotts, calls are growing for Western nations to boycott next year's Beijing Winter Olympics over China's human rights abuses in Xinjiang. So far, which is the only Western leader to have accepted Xi Jinping's invitation to attend?
A. Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary
B. Andrzej Duda, President of Poland
C. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Prime Minister of Greece
1. A — No one really knows how much Sochi 2014 really cost Russia, although the consensus figure — including non-sports infrastructure — is roughly $50 billon. The organizers spent a whopping $9.4 billion (more than the entire budget of the previous winter Games in Vancouver) on a 25-mile road from Sochi's coast to the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana in the North Caucasus. Olympics always run over budget, but Sochi took it to a whole new level.
2. B — Months before the Rio Olympics, medical experts and athletes were extremely worried about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which can cause severe brain abnormalities in children whose mothers were infected while pregnant . Despite Brazil being the epicenter of Zika, in the end the organizers and the World Health Organization decided to go ahead with the Games, and no one got the virus.
3. A — After winning the men's giant slalom event at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive for cannabis. The IOC initially stripped him of the gold medal, but days later an appeals court restored it because the drug was not yet on the IOC list of banned substances (it was added later). Rebagliati is now a successful cannabis entrepreneur in Canada, where recreational weed has been legal since 2018.
4. C — Wow, the IOC had serious Axis powers vibes back in the day. After Nazi Germany got the 1936 Games, that same year they awarded the 1940 Olympics to the capital of then-Imperial Japan. A year later, Tokyo was booted over the Japanese invasion of China and replaced by Helsinki, but then the event was cancelled anyway when World War II broke out in 1939.
5. C — "ROC" stands for Russian Olympic Committee, but the name can't be spelled out on official paperwork to comply with International Olympic Committee sanctions against Russia over the doping scandal at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. The sanctions ban the use of the word "Russia" or any national symbols (although the three color blocks of the Russian flag will be on the athletes' tracksuits).
6. C — In Mexico City, Věra Čáslavská discreetly looked down and away while the national anthem of the USSR was played during an awards ceremony to denounce the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring protests earlier that year. Although her bold gesture won her many fans at home, Čáslavská was soon ostracized and ultimately forced to retire by the ruling communists in Czechoslovakia.
7. C — In line with Tokyo's ambition to hold the most environmentally-friendly Olympics ever, all 5,000 medals have been made from recycled electronic waste collected from the Japanese public and businesses. The organizers started asking people to donate their discarded computers and smartphones way back in 2017.
8. C — Kayoko Takahashi, 53, was briefly arrested after trying to extinguish the flame of the Tokyo-bound torch as it passed through her hometown of Mito by squirting it with a water gun. Takahashi opposed the Games because they would lead to a massive COVID outbreak in Japan, where only a small percentage of the population is vaccinated. Interestingly, there have been multiple similar incidents during the torch relay in previous Olympics.
9. B — Two days before the inauguration ceremony in Tokyo, the West African country of Guinea-Conakry announced it would no longer send its athletes to protect them from COVID variants in Japan. Less than 24 hours later the government reversed course, and agreed to participate. So far, the only country to have officially boycotted the Games over virus concerns is North Korea, which to this day still claims to have not registered a single COVID case.
10. C — Right when the European Parliament was getting ready to vote on a resolution calling for EU leaders to stay away from Beijing 2022, Mitsotakis broke ranks by saying he'll go. Despite skepticism from Brussels and Washington, Greece has warmed to China in recent years, and has benefited from Chinese infrastructure investment through the Belt and Road Initiative.