What We're Watching: South Africa's COVID surge, the elusiveness of herd immunity, Malaysia's political emergency

Funeral workers wearing personal protective equipment carry a casket during the burial of a COVID-19 victim, amid a nationwide coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, at the Olifantsvlei cemetery, south-west of Joburg, South Africa January 6, 2021

South Africa shuts its borders: As a new COVID variant rips through South Africa, the country's prime minister Cyril Ramaphosa moved to close the country's land borders until at least February 15. This drastic decision comes after the government already shuttered public beaches and parks in recent weeks to avoid gatherings during the busy summer break. The newly discovered COVID variant is spreading at a much faster rate than the initial wave of infection, which peaked in the country in July. Medical professionals say that South Africa is experiencing a massive post-holiday spike in COVID-19 cases as people travelled (against government advice) to coastal areas, leading to massive spikes in hubs like Johannesburg and Pretoria. Hospitalizations and deaths are now surging in South Africa, and the 7-day rolling average of daily deaths has risen 75 percent over the past 14 days. While the country of 60 million people now accounts for a disproportionate 30 percent of all infections in Africa, it will not get access to any vaccines through the COVAX scheme until the second quarter of this year — if not later. Meanwhile, the virus waits for no one.


No herd immunity in 2021: The lead scientist at the World Health Organization warned on Monday that there will be no global COVID-19 herd immunity in 2021. Without it, the virus will continue to spread. There are three main factors that will slow the return to normalcy, according to health experts: Poorer countries will take longer to receive large quantities of vaccine, a significant number of people in all countries will avoid vaccination, and mutations of the virus will make containment a moving target. There is no true herd immunity within any one country until it is achieved in most of the world. The biggest political implication: Though mass vaccination now underway in some countries has spurred optimism that the pandemic is nearly over, tensions between governments and citizens all over the world will continue to grow as more restrictions on basic freedoms are imposed in coming months.

Malaysia's political emergency: Malaysia's king has agreed to declare a nationwide state of emergency that will suspend parliament and ban all elections until August. While it was officially implemented to contain the spread of COVID-19, critics of embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin have accused him of obtaining royal consent for a power grab, because Muhyiddin's fragile coalition government was about to collapse after its majority partner — the once-ruling United Malays National Organization — threatened to withdraw its support to force the PM to call a snap election. Although Muhyiddin has promised that a vote will be held once it's safe to go to the polls, his rivals argue that a state of emergency — which was last declared in 1969 in response to racial violence — is an excessive measure that will do little to stop the pandemic, yet will allow the PM to govern by decree at a time when he's politically weak. We'll keep an eye on how Muhyiddin uses his expanded powers to win more support for his shaky coalition, and how his critics can hold him accountable without parliamentary oversight nor elections for months.

Ken Burns discusses Muhammad Ali's background and how the journey of boxing's greatest champion is just as relevant today—in sport, culture and beyond.

"He is speaking to us with a kind of force and clarity...that to me is just so enduring." - Ken Burns

No country in the Western Hemisphere is more closely associated with disaster and misery than the Caribbean nation of Haiti. Its latest upheaval centers on news that the country's top prosecutor wants Haiti's prime minister to answer questions about the murder of the president in July. Haiti is again locked in a power struggle among competing factions within its ruling elite.

Why is Haiti still so poor and disaster-prone?

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For Michael Chertoff, former US secretary of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009, the fact that America has not experienced a single attack by foreign terrorists since 9/11 proves that the US was "successful" in its strategy to prevent terrorism. That "was not [an] accident and there was a deterrent effect to be honest — had we been lax, more would have tried." Although he admits the US government wasn't transparent enough about the intelligence it was collecting, Chertoff credits US intelligence agencies with helping to foil the plot to blow up airplanes mid-air from Heathrow to the US in 2006. The US mission in Iraq, or what came after was not clearly thought out, according to Michael Chertoff, who served as the Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush. The Iraq war made it difficult to focus on the US mission in Afghanistan and absorbed resources that could have been used more effectively elsewhere, he said.

Watch the full episode: Is America safer since 9/11?

Listen: In a frank interview on the GZERO World podcast, António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, speaks with Ian Bremmer at the UN ahead of the annual General Assembly week. Guterres discusses COVID, climate, the US-China rift, and the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, and does not mince words when it comes to the dire state of the world. "We are standing at the edge of an abyss," Guterres warns. COVID is "defeating" the global community and a climate catastrophe is all but assured without drastic action. Amidst this unprecedented peril, there remains a startling lack of trust among nations. And yet, there is still hope.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.


"Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still." — Harry S. Truman

The former US president's warning feels particularly prescient as world leaders prepare to gather at the 76th United National General Assembly in New York City, the first such in-person event in over 18 months. The importance of apt leadership in determining societies' ability to cope — and survive — has been on full display since COVID-19 enveloped the globe, decimating communities and killing some 4.5 million people.

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As the 76th UN General Assembly gets underway, dealing with the pandemic is still the top priority for world leaders. But for John Frank, vice president of UN Global Affairs at Microsoft, COVID is not the only major challenge the world faces today.

One of them — included in the UN Secretary-General's new Common Agenda for strong, inclusive pandemic recovery — is a different way to measure economic growth beyond the traditional productivity-led GDP model by taking more into account the cost of pollution, one of the main causes of climate change.

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For UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the pandemic has made the world even more divided than it was before COVID. That's especially true on climate, in his view, because rich and poor countries simply don't trust each other anymore. If we want COP26 to succeed, Guterres says we must rebuild that trust — or face the consequences of inaction. "If you are on the verge of an abyss, you must be careful about your next step." Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

"Pandemic" was the most used word of 2020. "Delta" looks set to inherit this year's title.

Vaccination rates are ticking up slowly. Governments aren't talking to each other enough. Parts of the world are back to normal, while others are still locked down.

Have we actually made any progress since the COVID-19 outbreak?


Unfinished Business: Is the World Really Building Back Better?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 11am ET/ 8am PT

Our speakers:

Special appearance by António Guterres, UN Secretary-General.

Visit gzeromedia.com/globalstage to watch on the day of the event.

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UNGA 76: Vaccines, climate, crises

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UN Chief: Still time to avert climate “abyss”

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