What We’re Watching: European omicron wave, Bolsonaro on Telegram, Chinese blind date

What We’re Watching: European omicron wave, Bolsonaro on Telegram, Chinese blind date

Omicron to sweep Europe. The World Health Organization reports that Europe will soon be the latest region to face a “west-to-east tidal wave” of the omicron COVID variant, on top of continuing infections with the delta variant. A senior WHO official predicts that “more than 50 percent of the population in the region will be infected with omicron in the next six to eight weeks.” Beyond the public health and subsequent economic impact of this event, governments across Europe must manage the political fallout. The most impactful example will come in France, where President Emmanuel Macron faces center-right and further-right challengers in his bid for re-election in April. The latest pandemic wave will also create challenges for Germany’s brand-new coalition government and maybe for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who’s expecting an especially tough fight for re-election this spring.


Bolsonaro hearts Telegram. Jair Bolsonaro mastered the use of social media to motivate his core supporters during his campaign to win Brazil's presidency in 2018. But since then, Bolsonaro has faced an uphill climb with Big Tech and the Brazilian courts, both of which are cracking down hard on the misinformation the president regularly amplifies. For months, Bolsonaro has been telling his fans to get off Facebook, Twitter and especially WhatsApp, which is used by almost all Brazilians with a smartphone. Now, Bolsonaro — perhaps fearing he'll be banned over misinformation from all Meta-owned platforms ahead of the October presidential election — wants his fans to flock to Telegram. Why? First, the app gives him more freedom to say what he wants and to as many people as he wants. Second, the Brazilian courts can't shut it down because Telegram has no legal office in the country. But so far only half of Brazilians use it, so he needs to build a big following fast in order to wage social media war on former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his likely rival who is currently way ahead in early polls.

The longest blind date in history? In the Chinese city of Zhengzhou, there’s a young woman we know only as Ms. Wang. We know she’s young — she’s posted photos of herself on social media — but her parents are reportedly concerned she isn’t yet married, so they arranged some blind dates for her. That’s how she met a man online who presents himself as an excellent cook. He invited her to his apartment to demonstrate these culinary talents and, not having read Signal’s coverage of our parent company Eurasia Group’s #1 top geopolitical risk for 2022 — and therefore underestimating the potentially serious impact of China’s “zero-COVID” policy in the age of omicron — Ms. Wang accepted the invitation. Then she got stuck at his apartment when local authorities suddenly ordered a total lockdown of his neighborhood. Ms. Wang has reported that the situation is “not ideal,” though the man has cooked for her for several days. She has not (yet) offered reviews of his meals, but she has noted publicly that “he doesn’t speak much.” We’ll be watching to see if either of these kids finds love in the future — and if they’ve learned anything about staying current on latest news and views from Signal.

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A year of Biden

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The Graphic Truth: How do US presidents do in their first year?

Joe Biden's approval rating has taken a big hit during his first year as US president. Biden is now just slightly more popular than his predecessor Donald Trump at the same point in his presidency. While Biden has made a series of policy and political blunders that might be reflected in polling, this is also a sign of the times: US politics are now so polarized that presidential approval has a low ceiling. We compare the approval ratings of the last five US presidents in their first year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow, Russia January 19, 2022.

Iran and Russia heart each other. The presidents of Iran and Russia have little in common personally, but they share many geopolitical interests, including in Afghanistan and Syria. They also have a common resolve in countering "the West.” These issues are all on the agenda as Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi held their first in-person meeting in Moscow. Raisi is a hardline cleric who leads a theocracy with nuclear ambitions. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is a wily autocrat who enjoys provoking America and Europe, and has ambitions to return to the glory days of the territorially expansive Soviet Union — as seen with the Kremlin's recent provocations on the Ukrainian border. With the Iran nuclear talks on life support and Joe Biden already bracing for Russian troops crossing into Ukraine, Tehran and Moscow now have even more reasons to scheme and cooperate. Indeed, Moscow and Tehran have increasingly been cooperating on energy and security issues (Iran might be buying Russian military technology) as their respective relations with the West deteriorate.

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President Vladimir Putin

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The timing of this blunder is... not great. It comes just as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to meet his Russian counterpart on Friday in hopes of lowering the temperature after recent diplomatic efforts in Geneva were deemed a failure by Moscow.

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, discusses the Democrats voting bill.

What is the status on the Democrats voting bill?

The Democrats are pushing a bill that would largely nationalize voting rules, which today are largely determined at the state level. The bill would make Election Day a national holiday. It would attempt to end partisan gerrymandering. It would create a uniform number of early voting days and make other reforms that are designed to standardize voting rules and increase access to voting across the country. This matters to Democrats because they think they face an existential risk to their party's political prospects. They're very likely to lose at least the House and probably the Senate this year. And they see voting changes that are being pushed by Republicans at the state level that they say are designed to make it harder to vote, particularly for minorities, a key Democratic constituency.

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Omicron has arrived. It's more contagious, but less severe. Some parts of the world are even looking forward to the pandemic becoming endemic.

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A year of Biden

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China vs COVID in 2022

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