What We're Watching: Brazil's COVID battle, crimes against Asian-Americans

People walk past a graffiti amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 12, 2021. The graffiti reads: "Coronavirus, together we will win that battle".

Brazil's healthcare system is on the verge of collapse: Brazil recorded more than 90,000 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the country's highest daily caseload since the pandemic began. As the country grapples with the world's second highest death toll, even President Jair Bolsonaro, a COVID skeptic who has rejected masks and refused a vaccine, warned this week that Brazil is entering a "more aggressive phase" of the pandemic. Bolsonaro's refusal to take the virus seriously, and his attempts to stop state officials from enforcing lockdowns to curb the virus' spread, have led to a shambolic and fragmented pandemic response. That, in turn, has allowed the virus more time to mutate, giving rise to a new more contagious variant that is now ravaging the country, experts say. The country's sluggish vaccine rollout has only made things worse. Amid the chaos, Dr. Marcelo Queiroga, a cardiologist, was appointed Brazil's health minister this week, the country's fourth since the pandemic began. Queiroga said that he will need the president to grant him "full autonomy" to bring the country back from the abyss, but many analysts warn that it might be too late: Hospitals are nearing capacity in many states, ICU beds are scarce, and oxygen rationing has been rife, resulting in otherwise preventable deaths. Fiocruz, a Rio-based health institute, recently warned (Portuguese) that the crisis is "the biggest collapse of the hospital and health service in Brazil's history." While Bolsonaro appeared to defy gravity last year and maintain a steady approval rating, polls show that his star is falling: 54 percent of Brazilians now saying his handling of the pandemic has been "bad" or "awful." It doesn't help Bolsonaro's chances of making a comeback that the Supreme Court last week overturned the corruption conviction of popular leftist Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, allowing the former president to run in Brazil's 2022 election.


Anti-Asian crimes in America: Tuesday's shooting spree at massage spas in the US city of Atlanta — which left eight people dead, among them six women of Asian descent — has cast a spotlight on rising crimes against Asian Americans. While the motive that compelled the shooter is still unclear (the police says he told them he was not targeting Asians, but in the past he had expressed anti-Asian views on Facebook), what is undoubtable is that there has a been a massive spike in violence suffered by Asian Americans since the pandemic began a year ago. The numbers are stark: hate crimes — from verbal harassment to violence resulting in death — against Americans of Asian origin increased by nearly 150 percent last year in 16 of the country's largest cities, and the advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate recorded almost 3,800 cases from March 2020 to the end of February 2021. Importantly, these are all self-reported incidents, so the real number could be much higher, particularly among older people who might be fearful of reporting crimes. Experts believe that COVID-19's origin in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and racist statements made by some Republican politicians, have both significantly contributed to the problem (even after the Atlanta shooting, former president Trump referred to COVID as the "China virus" in a public statement). Meanwhile, Asian countries like the Philippines are calling on the US government to do more to protect their nationals and American citizens of Asian origin. President Joe Biden has said that violence against people of Asian descent "must stop", and we're watching to see what actions he -- as well as local governments and communities -- are prepared to take to make that happen.

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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