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What We're Watching: Brazil's specific COVID challenges, Biden's Iran test, India's COVID budget

Municipal health workers walk along the Solimoes river banks, where Ribeirinhos (river dwellers) live, before applying the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to the residents, in Manacapuru, Amazonas state, Brazil, February 1, 2021.

Brazil's COVID nightmare: President Jair Bolsonaro's pandemic leadership in Brazil has been characterized by denial and incompetence, leading to the world's second highest death toll behind the US. But why is Brazil's COVID experience so bad even in a year of global catastrophe? First, the new strain out of Brazil, which mutated because the virus was allowed to run rampant, might be changing the pandemic's trajectory in a big way, experts say. Second, in the hard-hit city of Manaus in the Amazon rainforest, which was thought to have developed high levels of immunity because of a massive outbreak last year, many people are now getting reinfected and becoming very sick. Hospitals in Manaus are again inundated, and people are dying simply because there isn't enough oxygen support to go around. Additionally, in playing down the virus' severity and employing a lax approach to vaccine procurement, Bolsonaro cost the country precious time: Brazil now has 6 million doses handy, enough to vaccinate just 3 million people out of a population of 213 million. Yet the president is still sowing fear and doubt: "If you turn into a crocodile, that's your problem," he said about why he's not getting vaccinated.

Biden's Iran challenge: The Biden administration has made clear that reining in Iran's nuclear ambitions is a foreign policy priority. But how — and when — to begin serious dialogue with the regime remains to be seen. While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken believes in re-engagement because he says Iran has a breakout time (the time needed to ramp up uranium enrichment to make a nuclear weapon) of about "three to four months," Blinken, a moderate, also remains cautious. He argues that rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal "would take some time" and depends on Tehran's willingness to comply with the JCPOA provisions. But Biden's National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan recently seemed to suggest a speedier timeline, citing the urgency of curtailing Iran's bellicose behavior and nuclear program, which have ramped up in recent months. The UN's nuclear watchdog has estimated that Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium had risen 10 times more than that allowed under the deal's terms (3.67 percent) to about 20 percent. Clearly, managing the situation with Iran is the Biden administration's first major foreign policy test.

India's COVID budget: The Indian government on Tuesday unveiled a $477 billion national budget proposal that aims to significantly boost health spending for the next 12 months as the country continues to battle the world's second highest COVID infection rate. Reactions to the proposal so far have been mixed: For the opposition it doesn't provide enough direct relief for Indians who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, while some economists have lauded the budget for what they say are realistic expectations on revenues to encourage future spending without inflation as the country's GDP is expected to grow at a lower-than-expected rate this year. But opponents of the plan say that this modest approach will hit the neediest Indians hardest. Importantly, the proposal includes no extra support for farmers, who have spent the last two months protesting against new laws to make Indian agriculture more-business friendly that smallholders fear will put them at the mercy of large agribusiness corporations. We're watching to see if Prime Minister Narendra Modi's gamble on a swift "V-shaped" economic recovery for India — which largely depends on the government's ability to create jobs in the informal sector — pays off, and whether his penny-pinching with farmers will revive the angry mob of tractors.

Pop quiz: what percentage of plastic currently gets recycled worldwide? Watch this video in Eni's Energy Shot series to find out and learn what needs to be done to prevent plastic from ending up in our oceans. Plastic is a precious resource that should be valued, not wasted.

This Monday, March 8, is International Women's Day, a holiday with roots in a protest led by the Russian feminist Alexandra Kollontai that helped topple the Tsar of Russia in 1917. More than a hundred years later, amid a global pandemic that has affected women with particular fury, there are dozens of women-led protests and social movements reshaping politics around the globe. Here we take a look at a few key ones to watch this year.

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Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for the Eurasia Group, shares his insights on US politics in Washington, DC:

Another stimulus bill is about to pass the Senate. Why won't the minimum wage be going up?

Well, the problem with the minimum wage is it didn't have the 50 votes it needed to overcome the procedural hurdles that prevent the minimum wage when traveling with the stimulus bill. Clearly support for $15 an hour minimum wage in the House of Representatives, but there's probably somewhere between 41 and 45 votes for it in the Senate. There may be a compromise level that emerges later in the year as some Republicans have indicated, they'd be willing to support a lower-level minimum wage increase. But typically, those proposals come along with policies that Democrats find unacceptable, such as an employment verification program for any new hire in the country. Labor unions have been really, really fixated on getting a $15 an hour minimum wage. They may not be up for a compromise. So, we'll see what happens.

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shocked the world last year when he recovered from an attempted assassination plot by poisoning — an attempt that bore all the fingerprints of Russian government. Then he shocked the world again by returning to Russia and timing that return with the release of an hours-long documentary that catalogued the Putin regime's extensive history of corruption. Virtually no one, therefore, was shocked when he was immediately sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and expert on authoritarian regimes, believes there was a method to Navalny's madness. "His decision of '….I'm going to do something that harms me personally, but is going to be a lesson for Russians. I'm going teach a generation of Russians how to be brave.' I mean, not very many people would have the guts to do that."

Applebaum's conversation with Ian Bremmer is part of the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television stations nationwide starting Friday, March 5. Check local listings.

It's not like things are going well in Mexico.

COVID has killed more people there than in any country except the United States and Brazil. Just 2 percent of Mexicans have gotten a first vaccine jab, compared with nearly 24 in the US. The Biden administration made clear this week that it won't send vaccines to its southern neighbor until many more Americans have been vaccinated. Mexico's government has cut deals for doses from China, Russia, and India.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


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