Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

In the US, the Second Wave Is Already Here

If the United States had quick-thinking and efficient leadership, the pandemic would have infected about 100,000 people and killed only a couple thousand. That’s the experience of South Korea, times seven to account for the difference in population.

If the United States had overwhelmed but reasonably sensible leadership, the coronavirus pandemic would have racked up somewhere near a million infections at this point and killed about 36,000 people. That’s what would have happened here if we’d had a German-style response.

Instead, as of the beginning of July, the infection rate in the United States is a world-leading 2.6 million and the death toll has topped 126,000. There are countries with worse death rates per million people, but with a couple exceptions they’re either small (like Belgium) or presided over by leaders (like Boris Johnson in the UK) as idiotic as ours.

That is tragic enough. But now comes Act Two.

If the United States had practically any administrative team other than the Trump-Pence clown show, it would have at least flattened the curve at this point, no matter how many infections and deaths had occurred during the first wave of the outbreak. Americans would then be cautiously enjoying their summers, bracing for a second wave of infections that most epidemiologists have predicted for the fall.

Instead, while Europe and much of Asia are tracking down and containing small pockets of infection that reach at most into three digits, the United States is dealing with its highest daily number of infections yet — over 40,000 a day.

Remember those early statistics about how many more tests South Korea was conducting per day compared to what the United States was doing in a week? We are currently suffering the consequences of that disparity. Every day, the United States is now adding three times the number of infections that South Korea has had during its entire outbreak.

The Trump administration’s response to the threat of a second wave is: why wait?

American Lunacy

Donald Trump doesn’t like masks. He has refused to wear them. He has ignored the advice of health officials, members of his administration, and his congressional enablers. Trump is such an outlier on the mask issue that even Dick Cheney has consented to being photographed wearing facial protection.

Astonishingly, the president said, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, that some people are wearing masks “to signal disapproval of him.” To the extent that people associate Trump with Death itself or are wearing masks so that they can live long enough to vote the Grim Reaper out of office, the president is right. The pandemic in America has indeed become all about Trump: his appalling ineptitude and sociopathic cruelty.

Masks are just the tip of the iceberg toward which the president is steering Titanic America. Trump was warned multiple times that an indoor campaign rally in the middle of a pandemic was not a good idea. A group of Tulsa citizens and businesses launched a legal effort to stop the event from happening on the grounds that it would only contribute to the ongoing spike in infections. The Oklahoma Supreme Court put the kibosh on the legal challenge.

Trump not only went ahead with the rally last month, he seemed to do everything possible to ensure that it would be a public health hazard. His advance team had eight people who tested positive with the disease. His organizers removed stickers from seats that were designed to maintain a modicum of distance between audience members. In the end, the 6,000 people who showed up were all crowded together like sardine superspreaders. Most followed their leader by not wearing masks.

Tulsa subsequently experienced a new uptick in COVID-19 cases, though it’s not clear how many can be traced back to the rally. That’s because Oklahoma has an inadequate contact tracing system.

Not content to help boost the numbers for the coronavirus in Oklahoma, Trump then went on to Arizona, where he stopped at a megachurch for a rally with student supporters. Such churches have been the epicenters of new outbreaks in Oregon, West Virginia, and Texas. At the Arizona event, neither Trump nor many of his young worshippers wore masks. Trump told them several times that the United States was “at the end of the pandemic.”

Trump has done just about everything to distract Americans from the second wave of infections engulfing us. He has deployed racism (“kung flu”) to defect responsibility. He has studiously avoided the topic of the pandemic. He has claimed that the numbers are up because of more testing (wrong).

Even the Trump administration doesn’t have Trump’s back on this one. The vice president now wears a mask and urges others to do so as well. The health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, is not reassuring in the least: “The window is closing, we have to act, and people as individuals have to act responsibility,” he said recently. “We need to social distance, we need to wear our face coverings where we can’t social distance, particularly in these hot zones.”

Meanwhile, many governors are demonstrating that idiocy is not the monopoly of the president.

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, refuses to mandate the use of masks. Houston’s spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations has maxed out the capacity of the intensive care units at city hospitals. Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s response? He told the hospitals to stop reporting that particular statistic because it was generating negative headlines. Peekaboo: if we close our eyes, the pandemic will magically be over.

Of course, if people didn’t listen to Trump or their death-defying governors and simply stayed home, they could collectively flatten the curve. But no, many Americans have flocked to beaches, bars, churches, and dance clubs. They’ve been egged on by cheerleaders for a fast economic recovery who are either genuinely concerned about unemployment and widespread bankruptcies or fear that Trump can’t win reelection without a rapid rebound.

In some cases, the cheerleaders themselves have become victims of their own heedlessness. The head of Reopen Maryland, Tim Walters, came down with the coronavirus last week. It was not, alas, a Saul-on-the-way-to-Damascus moment: he hasn’t changed his views on reopening, wearing masks, or sharing contact information with government tracers.

Instead of getting the message, too many people are going after the messengers. The Washington Post reports that attacks on public health officials who counsel safe behavior have been particularly intense in Ohio, California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. In Colorado, according to the executive director of the Colrado Association of Local Public Health Officials, “80 percent of members had reported being threatened and more than that were at risk of termination or lost funding.”

Keep Out Americans

It is any wonder that the European Union, when contemplating the opening of borders to travelers and tourists, decided to continue to ban Americans?

This week, Europe will welcome visitors from around the world. With a few exceptions, those will not be American visitors. Who gets in instead? Rwandans, Tunisians, Uruguayans, Serbians, Moroccans, Japanese, South Koreans. Oh, and just in case you think there’s a North American bias, Canadians are welcome as well. And if China lifts its ban on European visitors, then Chinese will soon be taking their summer holidays in Paris and Rome.

If America manages to get this second wave of infections under control, Europe will reconsider. But why should Europe reconsider?

I’m reminded of those pictures of people you see posted at convenience stores — shoplifters, scam artists, stolen credit card users. Those photos are a reminder to the scofflaws not to return to the scene of the crime. Europe has posted an American flag at the passport control booths at its airports. Americans are the world’s scofflaws.

Too many Americans have proven themselves to be entirely irresponsible when it comes to the health of the community. That goes for too many public officials as well, from mayors to governors to the president himself.

So, it makes sense for the world to keep its distance, not just six feet but an entire ocean if possible. The entire country should be quarantined until we stop electing public health risks to office and, as a citizenry, start acting like adults instead of kindergartners who feel compelled to eat every marshmallow in sight rather than postpone gratification until it’s safe to indulge.

It’s not just America, of course. The virus continues to rage in Brazil, India, and South Africa. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, points out that “although many countries have made some progress, globally, the pandemic is actually speeding up. We all want this to be over. We all want to get on with our lives, but the hard reality is that this is not even close to being over.”

In the good old days, like four years ago, the United States for all its flaws would have been at the forefront of addressing this public health emergency.

Let’s face it: we are now the public health emergency.

FPIF, July 1, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Death and the Economy: A Dialogue

Welcome to Chewing the Fat, our weekly talk show here at WXYZ. 

Today, we have a special treat for you — two guests who will answer the question on everyone’s mind. Should we stay at home in virtual quarantine or should we head out the front door and reopen the economy?

The coronavirus pandemic is still claiming lives — nearly a thousand a day here in the United States. But other countries, like New Zealand, have effectively eradicated the disease. There is a huge disparity within countries as well, within states, even within cities. And some countries that have loosened their quarantine restrictions, like China and South Korea, have seen fresh outbreaks of the disease.  

Meanwhile, the global economy has taken a major hit. GDP has dropped deeper and faster than at any time since the Great Depression. Unemployment here in the United States stands at 15 percent and rising. People don’t know if they’ll keep their current jobs, get their old jobs back, ever get a job again. The government can print money to keep things going, but individuals can’t do that. A lot of us just don’t know how we’re going to pay the rent or get our next meal. 

Frank Jacobs is a Texas legislator, a businessman, and a vocal advocate of re-opening the economy. Frank, you’ve been talking about the Texas Solution. Tell us about that.

Frank Jacobs: I own a chain of 15 movie theaters across this great state of Texas. We opened up five of those this last weekend. This is what I told customers. I said: Take your mask off and relax. Breathe in some great buttery popcorn smells, watch a great movie, and just enjoy some time with your family. And that’s what I’ve been saying to people all over the state as part of what I call the Texas Solution. Here in Texas —

Cassandra Jones: Are you crazy?!

That’s our other guest, Cassandra Jones, an infectious disease specialist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. 

Cassandra: The number of coronavirus cases is rising in your state. And that’s even before your governor declared your reopening. And you’re not testing enough in Texas, not compared to other states and not compared to what you need to be testing in order to safely reopen the economy.

Frank: Well, let me tell you that in our movie theaters, we are taking every precaution and then some. Everyone will be six feet or more away from each other. We’ll be cleaning every surface. It will be a lot safer than going to the supermarket, where people get much closer to each other. We’ll be giving my employees their jobs back and safely providing some much-needed entertainment. If you don’t want to go see a movie, hey, that’s fine. But we’re providing an option for those of us who do.

Cassandra: You’re not talking drive-ins. If someone coughs or sneezes in your enclosed movie theater, the air will circulate any potential viruses to everyone else. And you’re not taking into account all the other interactions that take place because you’re opening up your movie theaters. In the parking lot. On the sidewalks. At the gas station where people are filling up their tanks. At the restaurants where they’re eating before or after the show.

Frank: With all respect, if we don’t start opening up the economy in these small ways, then there won’t be an economy left to reopen. Our approach here in Texas is very careful.

Cassandra: Your governor acknowledges that reopening the economy is going to cause deaths. And your lieutenant governor said that “there’s more important things than living.” He was talking about basically sacrificing lives — the lives of senior citizens, of people of color, of folks with preexisting health conditions — and for what? For making sure that the stock market goes back up? When it comes to the vulnerable members of our community, your Texas Solution sounds a whole lot like the Final Solution.

Frank: Now hold on there. No one is talking about sacrificing people. It’s the opposite. We’re talking about saving lives. Making sure that people have enough money to eat, to feed their children.

Cassandra: But more people are going to die as a result of the relaxation of restrictions. That’s a fact. Suddenly all the people who got bent out of shape about how there were going to be “death panels” because of the Affordable Care Act, now they’ve basically set themselves up as a death panel, deciding on how many people are going to live or die.

Frank: No one is talking about death panels. This is the right to life. Hey, listen, nearly 40,000 people die every year on America’s highways. It’s the leading cause of death for people under the age of 55. But we don’t ban cars. Instead we improve auto safety. We come up with better and better methods of reducing the risk of going out on the roads. And it works. Back in the 1970s, more than 50,000 people a year were dying in car accidents.

Cassandra: A car accident is not an infectious disease. Our models show that, even with the necessary interventions, we’ll have well more than 100,000 deaths in this country. If we relax those controls, the difference would be an order of magnitude.

For our non-scientific listeners, you’re talking about a million, yes? A million deaths.

Cassandra: That’s correct.

Frank: Other countries have been opening up around the world. They’ve taken a sensible approach that balances medical prudence and economic risk. Take a look at Europe. We’re 29 million people in Texas. We’re nearly twice the size of the Netherlands. About 40,000 Dutch have been infected, with over 5,000 dead. But here we’ve only had a little more than a thousand deaths and fewer than 40,000 infections. And, look, the Dutch opened up their primary schools and day care centers last month.

Cassandra: The countries you’re talking about have seen a substantial reduction in the infection rate. Netherlands has cut infections from over 1,000 a day to less than 300 a day. Italy was seeing over 6,000 new infections a day back in March. They’re now under 1,000 a day. The same with Spain, with Germany. These countries have much more robust systems of testing and contact tracing than we have in the United States. We are almost completely in the dark here in this country as to the real spread of this disease. In Europe, they’re operating in a much more information-rich environment.

Frank: Hats off to those Europeans. But here in America, we can make decisions for ourselves. We don’t need the state telling us what to do. We had a fellow here in Texas at Prestige Ameritech, the last domestic mask producer, who was all ready to restart production of N-95 masks way back in January. He notified the federal government, and they just blew him off. All that bureaucracy and red tape: it’s heartbreaking. Here in Texas, we know not to depend on government. We believe more in individual responsibility.

Cassandra: Individual responsibility? How about all those students on Spring Break partying and spreading the virus? Or that party last weekend in Ft. Worth where 600 people got together to shoot off fireworks and then started shooting each other? Most Americans are taking their responsibilities very seriously by staying home. But all it takes for an infectious disease to spread is a minority of the irresponsible.

Frank: But you don’t have a plan, do you? A plan to reopen the economy? If we listened to you, we’d all starve to death at home. Millions of us! That’s the order of magnitude I’m talking about.

Cassandra: We wait until the infection rate drops substantially. We wait until we have a robust testing and tracing system in place. We wait for more effective treatments, widespread antibody tests, and, ultimately, a vaccine.

Frank: Wait. Wait. Wait. A lot of us don’t have the luxury of waiting. You have a job, Ms. Jones, that you can no doubt do from home. You are in a comfortable place where you can wait. The rest of us depend on going back to factories, to running restaurants, to building houses.

Cassandra: I’m not saying that we can’t reopen the economy. I’m saying that we have to do so responsibly.

Frank: Well, here’s something to chew on. People die because of the economy all the time. They die in workplace accidents. They die commuting to work. They die because of air pollution caused by factories and cars and energy production. Every morning we get out of bed in the morning, we are taking a risk. Living is a risk.

Cassandra: That may be true. But some folks are at greater risks than others. The counties that are disproportionately African-American account for nearly 60 percent of the coronavirus deaths. In New York City, 70 percent of the essential workers are people of color.

Frank: Here in Texas, by opening up the state, we’re actually spreading that risk around!

Cassandra: You’re spreading the risk by spreading the disease.

Frank: You liberal types are always pointing to Sweden as the model the United States should be emulating. So, what about the Swedish model of tackling this pandemic? The government is full of social democrats and Greens. All lefty types. But there’s no lockdown. You can eat out at a restaurant. The schools remain open. Sure, there are some common-sense restrictions, like no gatherings larger than 50 people and no visits to nursing homes. They’ve had more deaths than neighboring Norway, which went for a complete lockdown. But the Swedes also haven’t ruined their economy.

Cassandra: But Sweden also has a very robust testing system. And contact tracing. They have a much stronger social safety net than we have here in the United States, with paid sick leave for workers. And people there complied with the voluntary distancing recommendations. What works for Sweden won’t work for Texas. Unless you’re planning to put in place a strong social safety net and rein in some of that good ol’ boy individualism.

Armed militia members in Texas are demonstrating around the state on behalf of non-essential businesses that want to open up.

Frank: Well, we’re definitely not sheep down here in Texas. Just because the government says something doesn’t mean it’s right. And I say that as a representative of government. The bottom line is that we can’t know for sure about my plan or anyone else’s plan unless we test them. You’re all for testing, right?

Cassandra: That’s not what I meant.

Frank: Every year more than 2,000 infants die in this state. That’s twice as many lives as the coronavirus has claimed. It doesn’t make any of us happy. We’ve reduced those numbers over the last decade, but we can’t get it to zero tomorrow. Everyone says that this virus is going to be with us for a long time. So, we have to figure out a way to live with it as well.

Cassandra: Or die with it.

Frank: Well, some people are going to die. But most of the deaths in Texas have been in nursing homes, prisons, and meatpacking plants. The governor is sending surge response teams to those hotspots to contain them. It seems more sensible to me to focus attention on containing the hotspots than trying to keep everyone under house arrest.

Cassandra: You’re basically saying that old people, prisoners, and low-income workers are expendable. That’s a cruel and disgusting policy. And it’s not even effective. The virus doesn’t stay in hot zones. By opening up the state, you’re providing the virus with millions more hosts to infect. And that will mean a lot more deaths, and not just in institutional settings.

Frank: Look, the Pilgrims knew that some of them were going to die on the ships coming over here from England. The settlers of the westward expansion knew that some of them were not going to make it to California. And our soldiers knew that some of them were going to die defending democracy overseas. That’s what it means to be American. We take risks. Live free or die, right?

Cassandra: All of those people volunteered. They knew the risks. And when they took those risks, they weren’t endangering their whole community. Increasing exposure to the coronavirus is a whole different category of risk. My grandmother is not volunteering to fight overseas or drive a covered wagon across the Great Plains. But these new state directives put her at risk.

Frank: I wouldn’t recommend that your grandmother go out to see a movie any time soon. Or go to a restaurant. At-risk populations probably shouldn’t be taking the risks that you or I can take.

Cassandra: You still don’t see that these are not individual risks —

Frank: And you still don’t see the importance of individual choice —

Well, we’ve run out of time, folks. On this show and maybe in this country as well. We’re facing the greatest threat to America in a generation, in two or three generations, and we can’t figure out how to pull together and get the job done? 

This is not the America I know. But maybe the America I know just doesn’t exist anymore. 

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 13, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured Korea

A Progressive Victory over the Coronavirus

The current pandemic has led to the postponement of elections around the world.

Over 75 countries have declared some kind of state of emergency. Several illiberal leaders, like Viktor Orban, have used the crisis to seize virtually unlimited powers. The Chinese model of full-spectrum clampdown has elicited praise across the political spectrum for its apparent effectiveness in combating the virus.

But one country has taken a very different approach.

South Korea held elections last week. Even amid a worldwide pandemic, more South Koreans went to the polls than in any parliamentary election since 1992. They weren’t turning out in protest. Rather, they gave the ruling party — and the president, Moon Jae-in — the largest parliamentary majority of any party since the country became a democracy.

The surge in support for the left-of-center ruling party has been because of the coronavirus, not despite it. The government’s handling of the crisis has received top marks both domestically and internationally.

Moon Jae-in has not been content to promote a return to the status quo that existed prior to the outbreak. He campaigned on a platform of transformation, one that has not been fully appreciated outside of Korea.

The South Korean example, because it holds many lessons for progressives around the world, offers a vivid refutation of the notion that the world, after the pandemic subsides, will necessarily shift further to the right.

Dealing with Pandemic

In late February, South Korea had the most coronavirus cases outside of China.

A cult-like church was responsible for a large outbreak in the southern city of Daegu, and the hospitals there were being overwhelmed. The government was scrambling to contain the crisis. A petition to impeach the president for his failure to address the pandemic garnered 1.4 million signatures. The country was getting bad press, like Suki Kim’s hack job in The New Yorker.

This week, less than two months later, the number of new cases of the coronavirus has dropped to a mere dozen or so a day. South Korea has had a little over 10,000 cases but only 236 deaths, for a mortality rate of a little over 2 percent. There have been more deaths in Springfield, Massachusetts (246) than in all of South Korea. That’s a metro area of about 700,000 people, compared to a country of about 50 million.

The United States and South Korea both registered their first coronavirus infections at the same time.

South Korea has achieved this success without closing down the economy. It shuttered schools and museums, and churches have held services online. But many restaurants and even movie theaters remained open. The unquarantined continued to travel with few restrictions around the country.

This ability to avoid full lockdown has relied on a robust and widespread system of testing, contact tracing, and quarantining. South Korea was one of the first countries in the world to manufacture kits in large enough quantities to test a significant portion of the population. It has gathered information on the movement of infected persons via cell phone data, credit card records, and closed-circuit television, and it shared some of that information publicly. It requisitioned the membership list of the cult-like religion in Daegu to shut down that infected cluster.

This system required some loss of privacy, which many Koreans seemed willing to give up. Oh Jeong Hyeon is a scholar at the Wilson Center. “In my opinion, COVID-19 is spreading quickly, and the disclosure of patient information is indispensable. The information not only lets people avoid the area of the outbreak, but also encourages people who were there to be examined quickly,” he told journalist Jean Lee, also at the Wilson Center. “That’s why the government needs patients’ information, and to me this is worth sacrificing privacy.”

The technological sophistication of the population — with an Internet penetration rate of 96 percent and mobile Internet usage of 90 percent — has enabled citizens to jump into the fight against the coronavirus. Programmers came up with interactive maps that provide information about where new infections have emerged. One popular app warns you if you come within 100 meters of the last tracked location of an infected person.

It’s not just coders that have gotten in on the effort. Musicians in the Seoul Philharmonic have put on virtual concerts to help get people through these difficult times. Violinist Won Hyung-Joon has gone even further by visiting hospitals and playing directly for coronavirus patients.

South Korea, contrary to popular belief, is not a high-trust society. People do not march in lock-step out of fealty to Confucianism or some collective ideology. But they do have a stronger sense of the common good than, say, teenagers partying in Florida or right-wing demonstrators in various states fed up with stay-at-home restrictions. South Koreans maintained physical distancing, complied with testing and quarantine protocols, and worked together despite some profound political, economic, and social divisions in the country.

At the international level, Moon Jae-in has reached out to help North Korea weather the pandemic. He has given advice to the Trump administration. After a tiff with Tokyo early on around travel restrictions, he directed his foreign minister to meet by video call with counterparts from Japan and China to discuss coronavirus cooperation.

When Maryland Governor Larry Hogan needed testing kits recently, he gave up on the Trump administration. The Republican governor pragmatically turned to South Korea and, courtesy of his Korean-speaking wife, negotiated a deal for 5,000 kits capable of administering 500,000 tests.

Early on, the U.S. news media was astonished by the statistics that showed Korea testing as many people per day as the United States was testing in 14 days. Even more astonishing is that, this late in the game, the governor of a state right next to Washington, DC has to get test kits from 7,000 miles away.

Moon’s Quantum Leap

During the election campaign, Moon Jae-in emphasized that it was no time for complacency with the economic status quo during the coronavirus crisis. Rather, it was an “opportunity for South Korea to restructure its economy — capitalizing on industries like AI and biopharma,” observes Minseon Ku, a scholar at Ohio State University. Moon said prior to the election that South Korea “can be the country that overcomes the crisis the fastest through solidarity and cooperation.”

What that means in practice is pushing forward with an agenda that had been largely blocked by the opposition in parliament. Now, halfway through his five-year tenure as president, Moon no longer has to worry about that opposition. Writes Doug Bandow in The National Interest about last week’s election, “The right had its worst legislative result since 1960. A former prime minister and parliamentary floor leader were ousted from the National Assembly. Party leaders are likely to take responsibility by resigning, leading to further disarray in the once‐​powerful right.”

The bottom line is that Moon’s party has a parliamentary super-majority that can push through its economic agenda. That means addressing rising income inequality, though probably more through job creation than wage increases. It also means finally reducing the power of the big corporations, or chaebols, which have been at the center of economic corruption for decades.

But the challenge for South Korea is two-fold. The economy is export-driven, and global trade is taking a big hit during this crisis. Also, despite some grand words about the dangers of climate change, the Korean economy remains carbon-intensive. The capital, Seoul, has a reputation for having the largest carbon footprint of any city in the world.

So, tweaking the Korean economy isn’t going to work. It needs a quantum leap into a fundamentally different economic system.

Strangely, the mainstream press has missed Moon’s larger economic goal. He’s not just looking at AI, job creation, and boosting small and medium-sized enterprises.

Last month, his Democratic Party pledged to implement a Green New Deal that will make South Korea carbon-neutral by 2050, the first country in Asia to make such a pledge. Writes Chloé Farand in Climate Change News: “The plan includes large-scale investments in renewable energy, the introduction of a carbon tax, the phase out of domestic and overseas coal financing by public institutions, and the creation of a Regional Energy Transition Centre to support workers transition to green jobs.”

The coronavirus crisis has given this political opportunity to Moon. You know what they say: a crisis equals danger plus opportunity.

Actually, let’s walk back that statement…

Crisis ≠ Danger Plus Opportunity 

It is often said that, in Chinese, the character for crisis translates into danger plus opportunity. The reality is a bit more complex. Rather than opportunity, explains Sinologist Victor Mair, the second element of the crisis character really translates into either “incipient moment” or “resourcefulness” or “machine.”

“Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis,” Mair adds.

The Korean words for “crisis” (wi gi) and “opportunity” (gi hwae) derive from the same Chinese characters. The current coronavirus crisis thus presents not an obvious danger plus an opportunity to be seized. Rather, following Mair’s analysis of the critical phoneme gi, it is a time of danger and a moment for technological resourcefulness. In other words, digging into the word “resourcefulness,” it’s a time to use scientific know-how to put available resources to more efficient or ingenious use.

I can’t think of a better definition of the Green New Deal. That’s what this double crisis of pandemic and climate change demands: using science to make better use of existing resources. South Korea, having beaten back the coronavirus and demonstrated that democracy can flourish even in an emergency, is now poised to show the world how to move forward to save lives and the planet.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 22, 2020

Categories
Europe Featured

Will the EU Survive the Coronavirus?

The most insidious tactic of COVID-19 is to get a person’s body to attack itself. In the worst cases, the body’s autoimmune system essentially goes haywire as it tries to fight off infection. This “cytokine storm” can lead to serious inflammation in the lungs and ultimately to major organ failure.

COVID-19 seems to have had a similar effect on the international system. Instead of working together, the global community started to attack itself. The mechanisms designed to facilitate international cooperation — borders, trade — began to work against this cooperation. In the worst cases, countries began to fight over the very medical supplies that, shared equitably,  could save the largest number of people.

This geopolitical cytokine storm will have long-lasting consequences. One of its casualties may ultimately be the European Union.

The Failure of Regional Responses

In an ideal world, the outbreak of COVID-19 in China would have precipitated a uniform international response.

Every country would have implemented the same protocols the World Health Organization developed after the SARS epidemic, and a global team of experts would have helped China contain the crisis. Then perhaps the world could have dodged the latest pandemic threat and avoided going into the current health and economic tailspin.

Absent a coordinated global response, different regions of the world could still have banded together to fight the infectious disease.

In Asia, each country approached the challenge its own way, virtually all of them better than the U.S. response. Taiwan, despite its proximity to mainland China, has kept the number of infections in the triple digits. South Korea has deployed a sophisticated technological response to flatten the curve after an initial outbreak. What Asian countries didn’t do, however, was pull together as a region. Even putative allies Japan and South Korea took the opportunity to amplify their longstanding feud by trading accusations and imposing mutual travel restrictions. Only recently have China, Japan, and South Korea begun to coordinate their pandemic response.

Latin America, riven by numerous ideological splits, has had wildly divergent responses to COVID-19, from the denialism of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua to a strict quarantine in Peru.

Having beaten back several outbreaks of Ebola, African countries have shown a bit more of a cooperative spirit, thanks to institutions like the Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement project.

Given Donald Trump’s erratic behavior during this crisis, forget about a coordinated North American strategy. In fact, there hasn’t even been a coordinated U.S. strategy coming out of Washington.

Europe should have been different. For decades, the European Union has built up institutional cooperation across economy, politics, and culture. Surely, it would take on an external threat like the coronavirus in a unified manner.

It didn’t.

The Case of Italy

Italy was the first hotspot to emerge in the European Union. Within a few days of its first reported case of infection in Lombardy on February 20, COVID-19 was putting an enormous strain on the hospitals of northern Italy. The EU’s response was largely bureaucratic — more consultations. When it came to concrete assistance, the EU had little to offer Italy.

On March 10, only a couple weeks after the appearance of its first case, Italy’s permanent representative to the European Union Maurizio Massari wrote in no uncertain terms in Politico:

Italy has already asked to activate the European Union Mechanism of Civil Protection for the supply of medical equipment for individual protection. But, unfortunately, not a single EU country responded to the Commission’s call. Only China responded bilaterally. Certainly, this is not a good sign of European solidarity.

Worse, a number of European countries like France and Germany actually imposed export limits on critical medical supplies for fear that they would need them in the coming days.

The eventual intervention of the European Commission to impose region-wide export restrictions in exchange for EU members rescinding their national bans might have alleviated some shortages within the bloc but at the expense of poorer countries outside of it. In early April, Italy is still nowhere near securing the 90 million masks it needs.

For many Italians, the failure of European solidarity was nothing new. Writes Luigi Scazzeri at the Centre for European Reform:

Over the past decade, Italy has gone from being one of the most enthusiastic supporters of greater European integration to one of the most eurosceptic member-states. Many Italians felt that Italy did not receive much European solidarity during the eurozone crisis, and that the Union served as an enforcer of damaging austerity policies. The damage to Italians’ view of the EU was then compounded by the bloc’s response to the migration crisis. Italy took in 650,000 migrants between 2014 and 2018, and efforts to distribute these among other EU countries were largely symbolic… 

Okay, so the EU screwed up its response to COVID-19. It certainly isn’t alone in misjudging the extent of the crisis and failing to act in the best interests of all.

It now has a second chance to make good as a bloc in addressing the economic crisis developing in the wake of COVID-19. Yet it seems on the verge of repeating an earlier set of mistakes.

Corona Bonds?

When Europe was in the depths of its sovereign debt crisis a decade ago, some countries called for Euro Bonds. This common debt instrument, floated by the Eurozone as a whole, could have provided access to cheaper credit for all members, but especially those hardest hit by the financial crisis. The most indebted nations like Greece and Italy supported the idea. The Germans and the Dutch, worried about subsidizing what they considered bad economic behavior, nixed the idea.

Virtually the same argument has reemerged today as Euro Bonds have become Corona Bonds, with the same countries in favor and the same countries against. Infuriated at the opposition to such Corona Bonds, Bloomberg reported, some Italian politicians paid for a full-page ad in a German newspaper “accusing the Dutch of ‘a lack of ethics and solidarity,’ and unsubtly reminding the Germans of the solidarity Europe showed them after [World War II], when Germany’s debts were forgiven or restructured at a conference in 1953.”

The EU has taken some dramatic measures in response to the economic shock of the shutdowns.

It has relaxed the rules on government spending to permit large-scale stimulus packages. The European Central Bank has made $820 billion available to buy up European bonds, which will reduce the cost of borrowing for the worst hit countries. The Eurozone has its European Stability Mechanism, designed to help countries in trouble with 400 billion euros at its disposal. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen also announced last week that the EU “will allocate up to 100 billion euros ($110 billion) to the hardest hit countries, starting from Italy, to compensate for the reduction in the wages of those working on shorter hours.”

There are other proposals including a Europe-wide stimulus package, which would come on top of the bailouts that each of the national governments has enacted, and a European Guarantee Fund that could reach 200 billion euros.

That’s a lot of money available to members of the club. Perhaps it’s enough money to buy — er, guarantee — the loyalty of even the most Euroskeptical.

So, why are Italy, Spain, and other countries still pushing for Corona Bonds? They want debt mutualized — i.e., shared — rather than dumped on the shoulders of the most adversely affected. And they’re worried that the other deals come with strings attached that will resemble what was required of them during the last financial crisis.

What the Germans and Dutch prefer, which would indeed include some conditionality, might seem to make economic sense. But it also might deepen the fissures already present in the EU and push the Eurozone if not the larger bloc to the breaking point.

Europe’s Pre-Existing Conditions

Before the coronavirus struck, it looked as if Europe was spinning off in many different directions.

The United Kingdom was on its way out. Hungary and several other East European countries were heading in a distinctly authoritarian direction. Italy was flirting with right-wing populism. On the economic front, Germany remained a powerhouse, Greece had not made up for all the ground it lost in the 2009 crisis, and the countries of Eastern Europe had not yet closed the gap with the western half of the continent.

The far right, which was gaining strength in the European Parliament, had decided not to follow the example of Brexit but instead work within the system to transform the EU. The coronavirus could very well be their best ally in this struggle to devolve power from Brussels to the individual member states.

First came the reimposition of national border checkpoints within the Schengen Area, with Germany the last to follow suit on March 16. Ten days later, Europe was supposed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Schengen’s abolition of border controls. Instead there are new gates and road barriers where not long before travelers could pass between countries without even knowing it. It’s not clear when these intra-European travel restrictions will be lifted.

Then came the more restrictive policies toward migrants still desperate to get into Europe.

On March 17, the EU closed its borders to non-nationals. Greece had already sent troops to its border with Turkey to stop refugees from crossing over by land. But people are still attempting to reach Europe by sea. Of the 800 who left Libya in March, 43 made it to Italy and 155 landed in Malta. The Libyan coast guard gathered up the rest and returned them to Libya. Now that the first cases of infection are appearing in refugee camps in Greece, the containment efforts are turning inward.

By contrast, Portugal has boldly given all migrants and asylum-seekers full citizenship rights on a temporary basis so that they can access health care during the pandemic.

Throughout Europe, national policies are trumping region-wide rules and regulations. The most extreme case is Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has declared a state of emergency that gives him nearly unlimited power for an unknown period of time. Other states like Spain and the UK have declared states of emergency but without comparable flouting of the rule of law. And some countries, like Romania, Estonia, and Latvia, have invoked Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights that permits states of emergency “in times of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation.”

Hungary’s authoritarianism, Portugal’s generosity, Italy’s call for solidarity, Germany’s tightfistedness: European responses to the current crisis are literally all over the map. This does not bode well for the future of the European Union. As Nathalie Tocci, a former adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, told The Guardian: “This is definitely a make-it-or-break-it moment for the European project. If it goes badly this really risks being the end of the union. It fuels all the nationalist-populism.”

Right now, Europe is in the midst of a cytokine storm. The doctors are hooking the patient up to the ventilators of economic bailout. It’s uncertain whether this strategy will save the patient or just prolong the agony. For sure, however, if the EU survives its intubation, it will emerge on the other side a different and possibly much weaker survivor.

Foreign Policy In Focus, March 8, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured Security

We Need a Coronavirus Truce

During World War I, soldiers all along the Western front held a series of informal truces in December 1914 to commemorate Christmas.

It was early in the war, and opposition had not yet hardened into implacable enmity. The military command, caught by surprise, could not impose complete battlefield discipline. An estimated 100,000 British and German soldiers participated. They exchanged smokes, sang together, and even, on at least one occasion that has since been widely mythologized, played a game of soccer.

Imagine how different the world would look today if that truce had held, if it had turned into a lasting ceasefire, if Europe had not burned itself to the ground in a fit of nationalist pique. There might not have been a global flu epidemic spread by soldiers in 1918. The Nazis might not have seized power and precipitated the Holocaust. World War II might never have happened and nuclear weapons never used.

At the very least, nearly 20 million people would not have perished in that first world war.

We are now in the early stages of another world war, call it World War III, this time against the common enemy of pandemic. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last week called on all countries to observe a global ceasefire to focus all resources on beating back the coronavirus. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, eight countries that have been suffering under economic sanctions — China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela — have appealed for an end to the economic sanctions that are hampering their efforts to battle the disease.

And a number of civil organizations are pressing for the release of political prisonersjailed journalists, and as many nonviolent offenders as possible to reduce the crowding that makes prisons a potential killing ground for the coronavirus.

Not surprisingly, there has been pushback to the idea of even temporarily ending these three expressions of state power: military conflict, war by economic means, and mass incarceration. But this pandemic, for all of its ongoing horrors, can serve as a jolt of smelling salts. International cooperation needs to take priority right now, and countries must stop their wars against one another and against their own populations.

Bombs, sanctions, and prisons are not effective tools in the fight against the coronavirus. Indeed, by aiding and abetting the enemy, they will only make the war worse.

Silencing the Guns?

There has been much talk of repurposing the U.S. military to fight the coronavirus. Two Army field hospitals have been sent to New York and Seattle. Some soldiers have already been deployed, the National Guard has been activated in three states, and the Pentagon has been authorized to call up former soldiers to help in the fight. But the military is, to use an apt simile, like a large battleship that is not easily turned. The Pentagon hasn’t even allowed immigrant doctors in its ranks to help against the pandemic.

In the meantime, the Pentagon continues to pursue its prime directive: planning war and killing people. On March 12, the United States conducted air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, in response to attacks that killed two U.S. service personnel. It was billed as a “proportional” response. Yet the Pentagon has been pushing a far more ambitious plan to go to war against Iranian proxies and, ultimately, Iran itself.

“Some top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser, have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces — and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country,” write Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt in The New York Times.

In nearby Afghanistan, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal at the end of February. But any end to the war in Afghanistan will require a truce among the factions within the country, indeed within the government itself. After a disputed presidential election that once again pitted President Ashraf Ghani against chief rival Abdullah Abdullah, even the threat of reduced U.S. aid didn’t persuade the two sides to unify.

The fighting continues on the ground, with air strikes against the Taliban most recently on March 24 as well a series of Taliban attacks in the last week against Afghan soldiers and policemen. In the leadup to the signing of the peace agreement, the United States conducted the second highest number of air attacks for the month of February since 2009. And last year, Afghanistan sustained the most U.S. aerial attacks since 2006.

Wars grind on in other parts of the world, pandemic be damned. All sides declared a truce in Syria in early March, but Turkey exchanged attacks with “radical groups” in Idlib province on March 19. This week, Israeli war planes targeted a Syrian military base near Homs. And the Islamic State has indicated that it sees the coronavirus as an opportunity to step up attacks — like a recent massacre at a Sikh temple in Kabul — because the last thing the “crusaders” want is “to send additional soldiers to regions where there is a chance for a spread of the disease.” However, COVID-19 will most harm Syrian refugees, particularly the recent wave of nearly a million people who fled Idlib and Aleppo in December.

In Libya, both sides of the civil war agreed to a humanitarian truce that evaporated after only a day and now the fighting there has even intensified. Whoever wins Tripoli will take over a capital with an already ravaged infrastructure and a collapsed economy. The Pyrrhic victor will then have to address a mounting health emergency with ever diminishing resources.

Meanwhile in Yemen, which is on track to becoming the poorest country in the world because of its five-year-long war, the combatants agreed to a truce last week. As in Libya, it hasn’t lasted long. The Houthis have since launched some easily intercepted ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, which retaliated by once again bombing Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

Conflicts throughout Africa — in CameroonChad, Nigeria, Mozambique, Mali — also continue despite pleas for a truce. Neither has al-Shabaab stopped its suicide bombings nor the United States ceased its drone attacks in Somalia.

Elsewhere in the world, there’s no pandemic pause for a series of equally deadly cold wars.

Weaponizing Sanctions

For years, the United States has tried to shut down North Korea’s economic relations with the outside world as a way to force the government to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program. North Korea devised a variety of methods to get around U.S. and UN sanctions, including illicit transfers of oil from foreign ships to North Korean vessels in the middle of the ocean.

But the most lucrative source of goods and revenues continued to be China, which has been responsible for upwards of 95 percent of North Korea’s trade. Washington has intermittently put pressure on Beijing to shut down this trade to pressure Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table. It hasn’t worked.

Then the coronavirus hit. By the end of January, North Korea had shut its borders with China to minimize the risk of infection. It even issued a directive to guard posts to put a stop to flourishing smuggling operations. What sanctions couldn’t accomplish in years, the virus managed to achieve in weeks.

Despite these precautionary measures, the coronavirus has no doubt reached North Korea. There have been reports of probable coronavirus-related deaths in the North Korean military. Thousands of people have been quarantined. Even as the North Korean government insists that the country remains pandemic-free, it has quietly appealed to other governments for assistance in addressing the disease.

The United States has so far held firm. Even though sanctions are holding up the delivery of critical humanitarian aid, Washington has refused to reconsider sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo continues to talk as if a pandemic isn’t raging outside: “The G-7 and all nations must remain united in calling on North Korea to return to negotiations and stay committed to applying diplomatic and economic pressure over its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

Pompeo has been even more ruthless toward Iran, an early pandemic hotspot. Tehran initially fumbled its response to a disease, which was quickly spreading through the populace as well as the political and religious leadership. As Human Rights Watch has meticulously detailed, U.S. economic sanctions have only made a bad situation worse.

Yes, the U.S. government formally permits humanitarian aid to the country. But its sanctions regime — which includes the threat of secondary sanctions against entities that engage Tehran — ensures that banks and companies steer clear of Iran. Pompeo’s take: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.”

That’s also pretty much the U.S. strategy toward Venezuela, which is in an even more vulnerable position. Though it only has a little more than 130 confirmed cases, COVID-19 will likely ravage the weakened country. “Only a quarter of Venezuela’s doctors have access to a reliable supply of water and two-thirds are without soap, gloves or masks,” reports The Guardian. “There are 73 intensive care beds in the whole country.”

This week, the Trump administration conditioned any reduction in sanctions on a political deal that requires President Nicolas Maduro to step down in favor of a transitional council that includes the political opposition. The current government has rejected this regime-change option.

These maximum pressure tactics toward North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others recently led Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, who is no softy on foreign affairs, to conclude that Pompeo’s “pandemic performance will ensure his place among the worst ever” secretaries of state.

Emptying the Prisons

Egypt freed 15 prominent oppositionists on March 21. A few days earlier, Bahrain let go nearly 1,500 detainees, but no prominent human rights activists or political oppositionists. Iran has released 85,000 prisoners, but only temporarily. Turkey is planning to release 90,000 prisoners, but none of them political.

Prisons are the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus: poor sanitary conditions, overcrowding, minimal medical facilities. Many countries, including the United States, are looking into ways of reducing the population behind bars.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is mobilizing support to pressure governments to release the 250 journalists who are currently in prison worldwide. UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to reduce the numbers of people in detention, with a special emphasis on political prisoners. “Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” she said last week.

Those behind bars are frequently the victims of various government campaigns: against a free press, against political dissent, against drugs. But when a major war threatens the homeland, prisoners are sometimes drafted into military service. That happened during the French colonial period and by different sides in World War II.

In World War III, we need everyone on our side. If countries don’t significantly empty out their prisons during this COVID-19 crisis, the inmates as well as the guards will likely be drafted by the enemy. This foe only gets stronger as our petty conflicts continue and the stiffest sanctions remain in place.

It’s time for a truce on all fronts — or else we will surely lose the larger war.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 1, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

The Politics of the Coronavirus

The far right thrives on fear. It’s no surprise, then, that it would use the latest pandemic, which has generated widespread panic, to bolster its own agenda.

All of the hallmarks of the far right are in play during the current crisis. It has pushed to close borders. It has demonized foreigners and particularly border-crossers. It has spread a variety of conspiracy theories. And where it is in power — Hungary, Israel — it has moved to increase that power through emergency measures.

On the other hand, the incompetent response of some right-wing leaders — Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — may well set back the far right in certain countries. Moreover, the scale of the threat has put on the table the kind of large-scale transformative policies that hitherto circulated only on the margins.

So, which way will COVID-19 ultimately push the political pendulum?

From Denial to Weaponization

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were in the White House today.

The far right, led by the head of the anti-Hillary forces, Donald Trump, would have immediately used the “China virus” to demand that the Clinton administration close all borders and ban all immigrants and refugees. Under ordinary conditions, in other words, the far right would have had a field day in the United States using the coronavirus threat to advance its xenophobic agenda in the face of a liberal, cautious Washington consensus.

But with Trump in the Oval Office rather than sitting on the sidelines lobbing the pundit’s equivalent of Molotov cocktails, the far right started out in denial. When the pandemic began in China at the end of December, after all, it was far away and it was not infecting Americans. Even when the pathogen was detected for the first time in the United States on January 21 — in a young man returning to Washington state from China — right-wing pundits continued to downplay the risk for weeks on end.

On February 24, for instance, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience that “the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus … I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”

He would say on another occasion that the greater threat to the country was Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party more generally. Just as becoming president didn’t make Trump more presidential in conduct, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom clearly didn’t make Limbaugh any more professional in conduct.

The breakdown of concern among Americans has followed the political contours of the country. Writes Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic this week:

A flurry of new national polls released this week reveals that while anxiety about the disease is rising on both sides of the partisan divide, Democrats consistently express much more concern about it than Republicans do, and they are much more likely to say they have changed their personal behavior as a result. A similar gap separates people who live in large metropolitan centers, which have become the foundation of the Democratic electoral coalition, from those who live in the small towns and rural areas that are the modern bedrock of the GOP.

As the Trump administration finally switched into its own incompetent version of engagement, some sections of the far right zoomed well past the denial phase. Those of a survivalist and apocalyptic bent are already halfway to their bunkers, with Alex Jones of Infowars infamy trying to profit off the panic by raising the prices on his prepper products. It’s part of a more general wave of profiteering that encompasses Amazon price-gougers and traffickers of inside information like Richard Burr (R-NC) in the Senate.

Neo-Nazis and sovereignists, meanwhile, are rejoicing at the failures of the federal state to handle the crisis. They are anticipating the realization of their cherished dream: the collapse of the liberal order. Still other extremists in the QAnon camp believe that Trump will use the virus as a pretext to arrest members of a global liberal pedophile ring (like Trump, they simply double down when their assertions are proven wrong, as in the Comet Pizza debacle).

Then there’s the blame game. Jerry Falwell Jr. fingered North Korea as the culprit behind the coronavirus. California Republican Joanne Wright, like many of her tribe, has asserted that China manufactured the disease but added the twist that Bill Gates financed the plot. And it wouldn’t be a wacky right-wing conspiracy if George Soros somehow weren’t implicated as well.

Chinese and Asians more generally have faced a terrifying uptick in attacks and discrimination. With the appearance of each new hotspot — IranItaly — targeted xenophobia has been sure to follow. Soon, thanks to Trump, it will be Americans in the crosshairs.

As far as the American far right’s anti-immigrant agenda, the Trump administration is already carrying that water. Trump closed the border with Mexico. He announced that all undocumented trying to get into this country will be summarily turned back.

Even the migrant workers who are seasonally granted H2-A visas to work on American farms are finding it difficult to cross the border. Farm owners pushed back against a ban, forcing the administration to accept workers previously granted such visas. But the absence of new workers will still leave U.S. agriculture dangerously understaffed.

Borderline Issue

For decades, Europe has been at war with itself over borders — both its internal borders and its borders with the rest of the world. The coronavirus has taken that war to a new level.

The overwhelming obsession of the far right in Europe has been to reduce or eliminate immigration from points east and south. Some political parties, like Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland, even support “remigration”: namely, forcing established immigrants to leave the country.

The coronavirus offers the far right yet another arrow in its quiver. “We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said. “There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement.”

In Italy, far-right leader Matteo Salvini has used the pandemic to push his “closed ports” policy. In February, even as the outbreak was gathering steam in his country, Salvini declared that “allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed, is irresponsible.” At the time, there was only one reported case on the whole continent, in Egypt.

In Germany, the identitarian movement hung banners proclaiming “Defend Our Borders” on the Brandenburg Gate, once a potent symbol of the erased border between east and west Germany. Throughout Europe, far-right parties were retooling their “great replacement” narrative — that immigrants are poised to overwhelm majority populations — to incorporate the coronavirus. The threat that outsiders supposedly pose to the health of nations has long been a singular obsession of fascists.

It wasn’t just the threat from outside Europe.

In 1995, seven European nations created the Schengen Area, which abolished their internal border controls and visa requirements. Eventually becoming subject to European Union law, the area expanded to include 26 states. Practically from the beginning, the far right has taken aim at Schengen as an unacceptable abridgement of sovereignty. It has argued that Schengen makes control of immigrants more difficult (as with the influx of Tunisians into Italy in 2011) and compromised anti-terrorist policing (in the wake of a terrorism suspect’s flight from Germany to Italy in 2016). Still, Schengen survived.

What the far right wasn’t able to do, the coronavirus managed in a matter of weeks. Some members reestablished internal border controls without notifying the EU Commission, as required by the Schengen Border Code. These moves prompted the EU to declare last week that all internal borders will be closed for 30 days. The next step for the far right, and its more mainstream conservative allies, is to try to make this temporary change permanent.

Separating the Competent…

For some illiberal leaders, the coronavirus is like a golden ticket. It allows them to sweep away what remains of the rule of law in their countries.

Consider Benjamin Netanyahu’s extraordinary moves to hang onto power. Up until recently, things weren’t looking so good for Bibi. He was supposed to go on trial this week for corruption. The last election provided a narrow victory to his opposition, and the head of the Blue and White alliance, Benny Gantz, was given first shot at forming a government.

But the coronavirus, a death sentence for so many people, has been a lifeline for Netanyahu.

As part of a more general lockdown, the prime minister froze the judiciary. And that just happened to put his own trial on hold. Meanwhile, the speaker of the Knesset, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, resigned this week and closed down parliament rather than allow a vote to elect his successor, who would likely have been from the Blue and White alliance.

Because of new rules that limit public gathering, it’s impossible for people to come out on the streets to protest any of this. It goes further, as Gershon Gorenberg explains in The Washington Post. Even as the government was freezing the justice system…

Netanyahu himself announced that the government would use electronic means to track the locations of citizens in an effort to enforce self-isolation. That quickly turned out to mean giving the Shin Bet security service the power to locate people via their cellphones. That measure, an extreme infringement on civil rights, should be vetted by a Knesset committee. Instead, Netanyahu enacted it under emergency regulations.

Think of it as a stealth coup. Plus the transformation of Israel into a police state. Or, put another way, Israelis are now going to understand a little more of what Palestinians have known for a long time.

Viktor Orban has done something similar in Hungary. He has put a new law in front of parliament that would give his government extraordinary power to detain pretty much anyone, as Kim Lane Scheppele points out in Hungarian Spectrum.

Anyone who publicizes false or distorted facts that interfere with the “successful protection” of the public — or that alarm or agitate that public — could be punished by up to five years in prison. And anyone who interferes with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order could also face a prison sentence of up to five years, a punishment that increases to eight years if anyone dies as a result.

The first set of controls is aimed at what remains of an independent press in Hungary. The second could incarcerate anyone who objects to anything the Orban government does.

As if that’s not enough, the prime minister could, according to the proposal, “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations, and implement additional extraordinary measures by degree.” These would be permanent changes in Hungarian law.

Many sectors of Hungarian civil society have vehemently opposed this proposed “enabling act.” And parliament failed to pass the bill on the first attempt this week. But it’s likely that Orban will try again next week, relying on his party’s comfortable majority in parliament to get it through.

…From the Incompetent

Donald Trump’s dangerously ill-informed response to the coronavirus — including such basic failures as providing test kits and other basic resources to hospitals — has incredibly not spelled his political demise.

According to a recent Monmouth poll, 50 percent of Americans think he’s done a good job versus only 45 percent who give him poor marks. His approval rating has even increased a couple points. That might change as the casualties rise, particularly if the president attempts to end the policies of social isolation early, as he has threatened to do. Or it might not, if the virus disproportionately affects blue urban areas.

For all his incompetence, Trump hasn’t been so stupid as to miss the political opportunity to push through parts of his cherished economic agenda, like further tax cuts. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is asking Congress for new emergency powers to detain people indefinitely without trial. The Trump administration is clearly looking to Israel and Hungary as examples.

Other incompetent leaders, however, may not survive politically.

Jair Bolsonaro has largely followed the same script as Trump by downplaying the risk of the pandemic. On March 15, despite having been in close contact with several members of his administration who’d already contracted the disease, Bolsanaro joined a demonstration of his supporters where he touched a reported 272 people. The president has claimed that his tests have come back negative. He also continues to argue that the crisis is little more than a media conspiracy.

Millions of people appeared last week at their windows in the big cities to bang pots and pans in a demand for Bolsonaro to step down. Even some of his conservative backers are outraged and have turned against him. After declaring in a December column in the conservative Estado de São Paulo that Bolsonaro is “unbeatable” in the next election, political commentator Eliane Cantanhêde argued more recently, “I think he’s fatally wounded for the election [in 2022] … If the election was held today there is a big chance Bolsonaro would be defeated.”

COVID-19 affects people differently depending on their underlying conditions. The same holds true for politicians. The most fit will survive while the politically weak will be weeded out.

Time for Transformation

Nuclear apocalypse is hypothetical. The worst effects of climate change are in the future. Neither nuclear disarmament nor radical cuts in carbon emissions have been on table because of the unfortunate tendency of politicians to minimize the risks and ignore the already considerable short-term impacts.

The coronavirus crisis is not abstract. It’s happening right now. Country after country has imposed quarantines, dramatically changing how people live, work, and interact. Governments are considering massive bailouts to save the economy and bolster medical systems. But those are just quick fixes.

“We changed the way we live, work and travel to counter this pandemic, why can we not do the same to counter the climate emergency?” asks Lorenzo Marsili in Al Jazeera. “Why should we go back to a deadly status quo now that we know it is within our power to transform the way we live and organise our economy and society?”

When the quarantines end, as they inevitably will, the world will experience the same kind of rebound in carbon emissions that happened after the end of the 2009 financial crisis. So, the economic response to this pandemic must incorporate features of the Green New Deal or we will be jumping out of a frying pan and into a literal fire.

COVID-19 is a near-death experience for the human race. Just as individuals often react to such experiences by transforming their lives, the current crisis should force a reevaluation of the status quo.

Anything less will be just a temporary stay of execution.

Foreign Policy in Focis, March 25, 2020

Categories
Articles China Featured US Foreign Policy

What the Coronavirus Says About Us

A crisis, according to self-help and leadership books, reveals much about a person’s character. The same can be said of a nation’s character.

Since the latest pandemic began to spread out of China in 2020, countries responded in very different ways to the challenge. There was ingenuity, inflexibility, incomprehension, and sheer incompetence.

Diversity can be a beautiful thing. But not when it comes to battling a pandemic.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. There was supposed to have been greater uniformity in response.

After the 2003 SARS epidemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) came up with new guidelines for responding to such outbreaks. These regulations are legally binding, and 196 countries signed the framework agreement. Unfortunately, as Selam Gebrekidan reports in The New York Times:

[D]ozens of countries are flouting the international regulations and snubbing their obligations. Some have failed to report outbreaks to the organization, as required. Others have instituted international travel restrictions, against the advice of the WHO, and without notifying global health officials.

Let’s take a look at a few countries — China, South Korea, Italy, and the United States — to see how the diversity of responses to the current coronavirus crisis showcases the best and the worst that these political systems have to offer.

The Pandemic Begins

China has treated the coronavirus as if it were an outbreak of political dissidence.

It has deployed the power of the state to stamp out the infection. It has censored dissenting voices. And, as is often the case with blunt-force approaches, it has achieved some success. While the virus is multiplying rapidly around the world, it seems to have been contained in China.

But there have been some disturbing side effects.

After some initial confusion, to put it charitably, the government moved quickly to shut down the epicenter of infection in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. The first case was reported on December 31 of last year, the new disease was identified as a coronavirus on January 7, the first death occurred in China on January 9, and Wuhan was under quarantine by January 23.

That two-week period between the first death and the announcement of the quarantine might seem like a long time. But on January 24, the government was still reporting only 830 infections. And, in some quarters, China was criticized for overreacting by shutting everything down, from schools to factories. One week later, however, the number of infections had climbed to nearly 10,000.

The quarantine methods wouldn’t show much effect until mid-February, when new infections began to level off. On February 18, Beijing reported around 72,000 infections. A month later, it had only reached around 81,000.

The government had the centralized authority to enforce the quarantine. It shut down internal transportation, canceled Lunar New Year celebrations, and shuttered Shanghai Disneyland. It deployed drones to warn groups of people gathering in public to disperse and go home. It placed millions of uninfected people in what amounts to house arrest, allowing only one member of a family household to go out every two days.

The government also attempted to censor the first reports of the new disease. Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan, posted on social media on December 30 the first warnings about the coronavirus. The police brought him in for questioning and forced him to sign a statement that he had made “false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order.” He later died of the disease.

The quarantine methods produced their own casualties. As Human Rights Watch notes:

A boy with cerebral palsy died because no one took care of him after his father was taken to be quarantined. A woman with leukemia died after being turned away by several hospitals because of concerns about cross-infection. A mother desperately pleaded to the police to let her leukemia-stricken daughter through a checkpoint at a bridge to get chemotherapy. A man with kidney disease jumped to his death from his apartment balcony after he couldn’t get access to health facilities for dialysis. And at least 10 people died after a hotel being used as a quarantine facility collapsed. 

Citizens and journalists who have been trying to tell the full story of China’s war on the coronavirus still face censorship and harassment.

The Chinese government’s actions were not arbitrarily autocratic. “China’s leaders did fumble at the very start, yet in short order they acted far more decisively than many democratically elected leaders have to date,” Ian Johnson writes in The New York Times. “Authoritarian or not, they also want the public’s approval. Chinese leaders may not face voters, but they, too, care about legitimacy, and that hinges on performance for them as well.” And it’s not as if the democratic countries that eventually followed China’s example put their decisions to a vote.

Meanwhile, the success of China’s approach owes as much to the public’s sense of responsibility as it does to the government’s autocratic methods. Writes Tony Perman, who was quarantined in Shanghai, “Certainly the reality of authoritarian control, the subservience of the individual to the state or the collective, and the pressure to conform made widespread habit change both more feasible and acceptable, even if due to fear of retribution. But there was a palpable ‘all for one and one for all’ ethos.”

The South Korean Way

Even before South Korea experienced its first coronavirus case, the Korean firm Kogene Biotech was getting its test kits ready for production. Soon thereafter, the South Korean government gave regulatory approval for their use in the country.

The first cases in South Korea originated from China, which reawakened significant anti-Chinese sentiment that had been dormant since the resolution of the last trade dispute in November 2017. By the middle of February, however, a much more significant outbreak of the disease could be traced to one of the many cult-like religious sects in the country, and infections quickly rose into the thousands.

Soon enough, the South Korean government switched to testing overdrive. On February 26, the country began drive-through testing. By March 9, nearly 200,000 people had been tested for the disease. The government is also, more controversially, using a phone app that relies on GPS to track those in quarantine and make sure that they maintain their self-separation. A rigorous triage has sent all but the most serious 10 percent of the infected to recover at home, lessening the strain on the medical system.

As with China, there were some initial missteps, such as when the Moon Jae-in administration prematurely declared the virus contained in mid-February. But the hyper-connected country has been able to practice social distancing with relative ease as people went online to work remotely, order groceries, and maintain contact with friends.

The South Korean approach also seems to have worked. The rate of infection has leveled off, and the death rate remains very low at less than 1 percent. Instead of the draconian quarantining that China implemented, South Korea has relied on technology, a rapid response aided by ppali-ppali (fast-fast) culture, lots of testing and follow-up, and a general spirit of compliance.

Italian Fiasco

European countries have responded in quite different ways to the virus.

Several countries, including a number that had earlier been so hostile to immigrants, quickly moved to close their borders. Germany has been characteristically blunt about the situation, with Chancellor Angela Merkel warning that 60-70 percent of the population will likely be infected before the outbreak is over. The Finns started preparing for the worst back in January, even taking steps to allow people to get communicable disease insurance in the event of quarantine.

The hardest hit country, however, has been Italy. As soon as two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive at the end of January, Italy declared a state of emergency and stopped flights from China. When the virus appeared again, just outside the northern city of Milan, the patient was originally thought to have been infected by a colleague returning from China. But the colleague tested negative. The virus, in this case, more likely came from Germany.

The real problem was neither China nor Germany. It was the Italian hospital that grossly mishandled that initial case. The sufferer, according to The Washington Post, “sought medical attention multiple times, starting on February 14, but he wasn’t diagnosed until February 21 (after he infected his wife, hospital staff, several patients and others).”

Two other factors have aggravated the crisis in Italy. There’s the scofflaw tradition whereby many Italians flouted the initial lockdown declared in the northern region to crowd the rail stations and flee town by any means. One woman even paid over $1,300 to take a taxi from Milan to Rome.

Also, Italy has the second highest proportion of seniors in the world: 23 percent of the population is over 65. Only Japan has an older population. That helps to explain the high mortality rate of the disease in the Mediterranean country. In China, the mortality rate is 3.8 percent. In Italy, it’s nearly double at 7.3 percent.

In a head-to-head comparison between South Korea’s widespread test-and-track approach versus Italy’s attempted lockdown approach, the former appears to be far more effective.

American Exceptionalism

Donald Trump has been an exceptional leader when it comes to addressing the coronavirus: exceptionally incompetent. He has exemplified the proud tradition of American exceptionalism, by which Americans believe that they are an exception to the rules that apply to the rest of humanity.

There have been five stages of American exceptionalism when it comes to the coronavirus.

Stage One: It won’t happen here.

Stage Two: It’s happening here, but it’s the fault of foreigners.

Stage Three: It’s happening here, but it won’t be as bad as elsewhere so we don’t need to take the necessary precautions.

Stage Four: It’s happening here, and it might turn out to be a problem, but it’s best to address the developing crisis haphazardly rather than at a coordinated federal level.

Stage Five: Uh-oh.

Trump has been the leader of the pack at all five stages. On January 22, just as the Chinese government was preparing to quarantine Wuhan, Trump said about the prospects of a coronavirus outbreak in the United States, “we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

After initially praising Xi Jinping’s hardline response to the crisis, Trump and his allies reversed course and started to blame China when the infections began to mount domestically.

Instead of following the South Korean example and making sure that testing kits were available, the Trump administration squandered the window of opportunity, By the time test kits were sent out, it was late in the game and those first kits were, in any case, faulty.

Writes David Leonhardt in The New York Times, “The Trump administration could have begun to use a functioning test from the World Health Organization, but didn’t. It could have removed regulations that prevented private hospitals and labs from quickly developing their own tests, but didn’t. The inaction meant that the United States fell behind South Korea, Singapore and China in fighting the virus.”

Trump has finally awoke to the severity of the problem, no doubt as a result of having close brushes with infected people at the Conservative Political Action Conference and with a delegation from Brazil that visited him at Mar-a-Lago. But he has acted erratically and dangerously. His European travel ban was done without consultation with allies and put Americans hastily returning from Europe at the mercy of unprepared airport security.

But perhaps the most unsettling failure has been the lack of federal coordination, with different messages coming from different parts of government and states left to manage things as best they can. Governors have clashed with the president; mayors have clashed with governors.

In his most recent punt, Trump told governors not to wait for federal assistance when it comes to acquiring necessary ventilators, but “try getting it yourselves.”

Get it yourselves. That kind of message is grimly appropriate in a country without national health care. With a message like that coming from the top, it’s no wonder that Americans are stocking up on rice and toilet paper, like people around the world — but more pointedly, guns and body armor as well. If it’s “all for one and one for all” in other countries, in Trump’s America, it’s “all against all.”

This is what happens when you run on a platform devoted to the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon put it so colorfully. First you get deconstruction when Trump takes office. Then you get destruction, when Trump’s minions go to work.

Finally, when all the competent people have been escorted out of government, you get uh-oh. In this sense, the coronavirus is nothing new. Americans have been living in the uh-oh stage ever since November 8, 2016.

Foreign Policy In Focus, March 18, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Will the Coronavirus Kill Globalization?

At a dinner party in mid-February, an architect told me that he was having a problem finishing his building projects. It was the carpets.

Most wall-to-wall carpeting for big construction projects in the United States, he explained, comes from China. The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan — and the subsequent shutdown of many Chinese factories — was having a ripple effect across the global economy all the way down to the carpeting in U.S. buildings.

The global spread of a new pathogen has exposed the fragility of modern life. As it moves around the world, the coronavirus has compromised the circulatory system of globalization, dramatically reducing the international flow of money, goods, and people. The disease has done so rather economically, by infecting fewer than 100,000 people so far. Extrapolation and fear have done most of the work for it.

In the world of things, the coronavirus has infected the global supply chains that connect manufacturers and consumers. Port traffic in Los Angeles, the largest U.S. port, declined by 25 percent in February. Container traffic in general was down over 10 percent last month.

Manufacturers that depend on the sourcing of components in far-off countries had already been rethinking their participation in the global assembly line because of tariffs, the costs of transport, and increased automation. This “reshoring” will get a boost from the disruptions of the coronavirus.

People, too, are not moving around as much. Airline service in and out of emerging hot spots — South Korea, Italy — has been cancelled. Airline ticket sales last week were down 10 percent over the same period last year. The cruise industry, after outbreaks on a couple big ships, has taken a major hit.

After blithely ignoring the coronavirus outbreak in China for most of February, markets took a major dive in the final week of the month. The stock market lost $6 trillion in value last week, its worst showing since the financial crisis of a decade ago. This is testament to both the persistence of the disease and the incompetence of certain national leaders, notably Donald Trump. Despite the intervention of the Federal Reserve and other central banks, market volatility continues.

It might seem ridiculous to expect that a pathogen, even one that spreads at the rate of a pandemic, could reverse an economic trajectory that’s more than a century in the making. But the coronavirus outbreak coincides with attacks on economic globalization from many different quarters.

Environmentalists, for instance, have long been skeptical of unrestrained global economic growth. The threat of climate change has sharpened that critique and placed it squarely in the middle of mainstream debate.

Meanwhile, worsening economic inequality has called into question the capacity of economic globalization to lift all boats in a rising tide. Even the IMF has acknowledged the pernicious impact of this inequality (but without engaging in the necessary institutional overhaul to address the problem).

Finally, a slowing of global economic integration over the last decade suggests that the world may already have passed peak globalization.

On top of these systemic challenges, a rising political populism has targeted the global economic elite as the enemy of “the people.” Donald Trump challenged this elite and their orthodoxy of free trade by imposing tariffs on allies and adversaries alike and by withdrawing U.S. participation in big trade pacts, like the Trans Pacific Partnership.

The trade war he began with China has had perhaps the greatest impact. It has hit both economies hard, with job loss, higher bills for consumers, and lost markets for manufacturers and farmers. The recent agreement between Beijing and Washington notwithstanding, most of the tariffs remain in place.

Meanwhile, the UK finally pulled out of the European Union this year, which was a victory for economic nationalists. Populists elsewhere have railed against what Steve Bannon calls the “Davos class.” Neoliberal orthodoxy has given way to pronouncements of America First, Brazil First, and the like.

Such a setback is not necessarily fatal. Globalization has been challenged before by financial crises, pandemics like the Hong Kong Flu, even the specter of Y2K.

This time around, however, the failure of the global community to establish new rules of the road for the economy, the environment, and health care is creating a perfect storm of international disfunction. If something with a relatively low mortality rate like the coronavirus — between one percent and four percent, compared to 50 percent for Ebola — can do such a number on the global economy, perhaps the patient was already suffering from some pretty dire underlying conditions.

Pandemic

When people travel, they bring all sorts of luggage, including pathogens.

Thus was the great era of exploration also the dismal era of genocide. Explorers to the New World brought a panoply of diseases like smallpox and measles that were new to the indigenous communities. The colonial invaders subjected the Americas to war and slavery. But it was those diseases that were largely responsible for a catastrophic reduction in populations up and down the Americas. As many as 56 million people, or 10 percent of the world population at the time, died by the beginning of the 1600s. The mortality rate for the indigenous communities was an astonishing 90 percent.

In exchange, the explorers returned to their native countries with syphilis, a horrible disease to be sure, but it didn’t radically depopulate Europe.

Pandemics are closely associated with the movement of traders and soldiers. Roman soldiers returning from Mesopotamia were responsible for the plague that ravaged the empire in the second century AD, one of several pandemics that helped end Rome’s global dominance. The bubonic plague of the fourteenth century began in China and reached Europe via merchant ships carrying flea-infested rats. In the modern era, soldiers returning home from fighting in World War I spread the Spanish flu, killing up to 50 million people.

This last pandemic was one of the factors behind the collapse of the first wave of modern globalization. Prior to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the world had never been more tightly connected with steamships, trains, and the telegraph serving as the connective tissue. Trade as a proportion of GDP stood at 14 percent on the eve of the war.

The devastation of World War I followed by the flu epidemic dealt a heavy blow to world trade and economic integration. The global economic depression of the 1920s, the rise of various types of nationalism, and a second world war ensured that, by 1945, trade as a proportion of GDP had dropped to a mere 5 percent.

Modern globalization is made possible by modern medicine. A couple of pandemics have broken out since 1945, but they haven’t disrupted the global circulatory system. In the ancient Akkadian language, the word for epidemic disease meant “certain death.” Only recently have medical professionals been able to handle outbreaks of disease on such a scale.

Thanks to a second wave of globalization, trade would rise again to the levels it registered in 1914 — but only by the late 1980s. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a third wave of globalization removed more barriers to the movement of goods and money. Even China, a nominally Communist country, joined the World Trade Organization at the end of 2001. It has since offered its own version of globalization through the Belt and Road initiative that places China at the center of a burgeoning network of trade and finance.

The coronavirus, by itself, will not put an end to this most recent wave of globalization. Like the flu pandemic of 1918, it could contribute to a trend of greater fragmentation. Or, by serving as a reminder of how the health of humanity has been mutually dependent across borders for millennia, the latest outbreak could prompt a rethinking of how the world works together.

Things Fall Apart?

China will prove pivotal in determining which direction the world heads.

At the moment, economic pundits in the West are exhibiting a degree of schadenfreude at Beijing’s difficulties. Kenneth Rapoza, for instance, argues in Forbes that “The new coronavirus Covid-19 will end up being the final curtain on China’s nearly 30 year role as the world’s leading manufacturer.” The global assembly line was already shifting away from Chinese sources as a result of Trump’s tariffs, so the pandemic only reinforces this trend.

China could still come out a winner in all of this. No longer dependent on low-end manufacturing, it could invest its surplus capital into an even greater push toward higher value-added production, particularly in the digital sphere. This shift could facilitate a major reduction in the country’s carbon footprint as well.

Much depends on the U.S.-China relationship. Long before the coronavirus crisis, the U.S. policy elite had already moved away from supporting engagement with China. China was already prepared for disengagement. It had laid the groundwork for an alternative globalization, denominated in the renminbi and financed by the country’s considerable trade surpluses. Many countries in China’s vicinity opted to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative and receive financing from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

At the very moment that China and the United States need to forge a new consensus on economy and environment, the two countries are heading in different directions. And that will make it very difficult for the international community, such that it is, to come up with global solutions to what are increasingly global problems such as climate change and pandemics.

Because of the coronavirus, China has rediscovered how dependent it is on the rest of the world — to buy Chinese products, to supply Chinese consumers, to provide raw materials for Chinese business, to service Chinese tourists.

China’s projected growth rate for 2020 has been revised down from 6 percent to 5 percent, but it might drop even further. Sociologist Walden Bello has long argued that the Chinese economy is in fact quite fragile — with overcapacity in the manufacturing sector, a real-estate bubble, high rates of debt, and growing inequality.

With the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing was hoping it could grow its way out of these problems. That strategy depends on a number of unknown variables, which in the short term include the persistence of the pandemic and the results of the upcoming presidential election in the United States.

The coronavirus is a wake-up call for both Beijing and Washington. The new status quo of a revived Cold War between the two hegemons is unworkable. It’s time for another wave of globalization, but this time one that reduces carbon emissions, proceeds more equitably, and strengthens the capacity of international institutions to fight pandemics.

It won’t happen without U.S.-China cooperation. And that won’t happen without a different U.S. president and a different approach in Beijing.

Foreign Policy In Focus, March 4, 2020