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.

All businesses have a role to play in accelerating the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy.

That's why Bank of America is part of the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials, a group of financial institutions working to assess and disclose the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with their loans and investments.

Betrayal. Treason. Duplicity. These are some of the words used by the French government to describe the US' recent decision to freeze Paris out of a new security pact with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which nixed a contract for Australia to buy French submarines.

Macron's subsequent tough stance against one of its oldest and closest allies is unusual, including his decision to briefly recall the French ambassador from Washington, the first time a French president has done so. But this headstrong strategy is also a deliberate diplomatic choice.

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Eighteen months later, some countries are already recovering from COVID, while others are still in the thick of it. What's the current state of play on vaccines, what's holding up distribution, will the world emerge stronger or weaker, what should the private sector do, and has Biden delivered on US leadership expectations?

Top leaders from the United Nations, the WHO, the World Bank, and Microsoft weighed in during a Global Stage virtual conversation hosted by GZERO Media in partnership with Microsoft during the 76th UN General Assembly, moderated by The New Yorker's Susan Glasser.
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Can the UK join a North American trade deal? The acronym for the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement was never all that elegant, but now London wants to throw two more letters into that soup. That's right, the UK wants to join USMCA, the trade pact brokered by the Trump administration in 2020 as an update to the 1990s-era NAFTA agreement. London had hoped that Brexit would free it up to ink a bilateral free trade deal with the US, but as those talks have stalled in recent months, PM Boris Johnson now wants to plug his country into the broader three-party deal. The fact that the UK already has deals with Canada and Mexico should help, in principle. But it would doubtless be a complex negotiation. And there's at least one huge hurdle: US officials are reportedly unaware of any mechanism at all for bringing aboard additional countries.

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1 billion: US House Democrats this week voted to cut $1 billion worth of military aid for Israel. The money — which was stuffed into a larger appropriations bill meant to fund the US government and raise the debt ceiling — was supposed to go specifically to Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. The move sets up a showdown between progressives who want to slash US aid to Israel and the pro-Israel moderate wing of the party.

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Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

How will the QUAD leaders address the microchip supply chain issue during their meeting this week?

Well, the idea for leaders of the US, Japan, India, and Australia, is to collaborate more intensively on building secure supply chains for semiconductors, and that is in response to China's growing assertiveness. I think it's remarkable to see that values are becoming much more clearly articulated by world leaders when they're talking about governing advanced technologies. The current draft statement ahead of the QUAD meeting says that collaboration should be based on the rule of respecting human rights.

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On the one hand, UN Secretary-General António Guterres believes COVID has fractured trust between mainly rich and poor countries, especially on vaccines, as the pandemic "demonstrated our enormous fragility." On the other hand, it generated more trust in science, especially on climate — practically the only area, Guterres says, where the US and China can find some common ground these days. Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

Well, we're in the thick of "high-level week" for the United Nations General Assembly, known as UNGA. As always, the busiest few days in global diplomacy are about more than just speeches and hellish midtown traffic in Manhattan. Here are a few things we are keeping an eye on as UNGA reaches peak intensity over in Turtle Bay.

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