Research & Analysis

The World This Week: WHO declares Pandemic, Italy shuts down, Xi Jinping visits Wuhan, Instability grips Kabul, and an Oil war brews between Russia and Saudi Arabia

WHO on Coronavirus outbreak: A Pandemic “That CAN Be Controlled.”

What happened? 
WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus officially announced on Wednesday, 11 March 2020, that the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China had increased 13 times in the last fortnight and that number of affected countries had tripled. Hence it is now “a pandemic”. More than 120,000 cases have been reported in 114 countries, and about 4,300 people have lost their lives so far. The number of deaths and affected countries are expected to climb higher. The WHO also noted an alarming level of spread and severity accompanied by alarming levels of inaction. The good news amidst all this is that 81 countries have not reported any Covid-19 cases and 57 countries have reported only 10 cases or less.

What is the background? 
An epidemic is a large outbreak of a disease that is out of control, spreading beyond a city to a broader area, affecting more people than a simple ‘outbreak’. However, a pandemic is when the disease spreads over several countries or continents and can affect the whole world.

The declaration came soon after identified cases multiplied in the United States in just two days and also German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned that 60 to 70 per cent of Germans could get affected by the virus. Italy declared a complete shutdown and specialists cautioned more significant number of nations would witness massive flare-ups and medicinal services shortage issues.

What does it mean? 
The WHO has maintained that declaration of a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by the coronavirus. The WHO has also come under criticism for becoming one of the many Big Institutions that have failed smaller nations as it declared the virus as a Pandemic only after the US and European nations were affected. According to many, the decision came very late. However, the WHO believes that careless use of the word ‘Pandemic’ could cause unreasonable fear leading to unnecessary suffering and death.

Following the announcement, a first-of-its-kind ‘new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Solidarity Response Fund’ was set up by the United Nations Foundation and the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation, together with the WHO to enable private individuals, corporations and institutions world over raise money and support the WHO and its partners to help countries respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The WHO however believes that hope is not lost as countries can together still change the course of this pandemic as the world has never before seen a pandemic that ‘can be controlled’. Nations should take urgent and aggressive actions as the WHO has rung the alarm bell loud and clear.

 

Coronavirus Pandemic: Shutdown in Italy, National Emergency in Spain

What happened? 
In an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Italy has declared to close all shops except food stores and pharmacies in Europe’s toughest shutdown yet. In a televised address on 12 March, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the tightened restriction would be in force from until 25 March, and the impact will be felt on the rate of new cases in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has suspended all travel from Europe for 30 days. It joins Austria in restricting the travel and its border movement of people and goods with Italy.
Sixty million Italians can now move around the country only for work and health, with written permission. Also on 14 March, Spain declared a state of emergency for the next 15 days to better combat the coronavirus. The state of emergency remains to be formally approved by a cabinet meeting which will give the government power to take wide-ranging measures deemed fit to battle the spread of the virus.

What is the background? 
Conte introduced the country-wide lockdown by quoting it as the “I’m staying home” decree, after a regional quarantine in the most severely affected northern part of the country, was seen as inadequate. The regional authorities of Lombardy and Veneto have asked for a complete full shutdown (including factories) for two weeks, just like in Wuhan, in order to prevent a collapse of the health system overloaded by the number of infected cases.

Italy has now seen 1,016 deaths, amid a total number of 15,113 infections. The civil protection officials say 1,258 have recovered, although the number of cases has simultaneously increased by 2,651 since 11 March. Italy is the world’s worst-hit country after China. Spain has now recorded the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Europe after Italy. The current reported cases in Spain stands at 4,209, up by about 1,000 cases from 12 March. In Spain, about 120 people have died.

What does it mean? 
First, the maximum impact of the shutdown in Italy was felt in its tourism sector that has put a strain on its economy. The government has pledged to spend €25bn in health care which is three times more than estimated. This might result in a recession. The government has already tried to ease the burden on the people by relaxing the mortgage payments. The social distancing rules imposed on society have led the Italians to change their otherwise regular gestures and greetings towards each other. The government is exploring proposals to let people delay paying their bills. There has been unrest—some runs on supermarkets and riots at prisons after visits from relatives were banned.

Second, Italy has sought to follow a China-style lockdown as the response mechanism. In this regard, Italy has witnessed positive results on areas where the shutdown has been imposed. Two weeks after the first ten towns in northern Italy were declared a “red zone” and put under lockdown, no new infections have been reported. Italy which has chosen an intrastate lockdown, has been greeted with an interstate lockdown as well from Austria and Slovenia. Countries across the world have grounded flights to Italy or banned entry to Italians or anyone travelling from Italy. Italian nationals living in other countries have reported individual acts of hostility towards them.

Last, the lockdown response mechanism is testing how much restriction is possible in a democracy balancing public safety with freedom. Besides, the closing of borders along with the suspension of flights and discriminatory treatments to Italian citizens are also challenging the extent of integration that Europe has propagated to be. The countries have until now tried to balance protecting the health and welfare of citizens with protecting their integrated economy from facing a blown-out recession. While on the one hand, Europe is well-positioned to face this crisis with good universal public health care, it is also ill-equipped to contain without backtracking on its very principles of free movement of people, goods, and information. It is interesting to understand how the virus has created new borders of control.

Xi Jinping visits Wuhan, the epicentre of CoronaVirus

What happened?
As his first visit since the outbreak, Xi Jinping visited Wuhan on 10 March 2020. This ‘surprise’ visit began at Huoshenshan hospital in Hubei Province, which is one of the makeshift medical facilities that is treating patients in severe and critical conditions. Xi was seen greeting the healthcare workers and meeting with health officials, along with waving to a coronavirus patient through video conferencing in the images that have been released from his visit.

In his statements from the visits, Xi Jinping spoke about the people of Wuhan as “demonstrating the strength and spirit of China,” without whose efforts and sacrifice, the positive trend in the control of the epidemic would not have been achieved. He described the medical workers as the “most admirable people in the new era.” He called them “messengers of light and hope,” insisting that the country’s response to the virus was a test for China’s capacity and systems of governance with lessons to learn. His visit to Wuhan came at a time when the number of infections is skyrocketing across the world, but the reported cases of infection show a steady decline in China.

What is the background?
Wuhan is known to be the epicentre of the COVID19 virus. For over two months, the entire city was placed under quarantine, and the Chinese government took aggressive measures to try and contain the spread of the virus while looking for measures to find a solution to the infected people. After weeks of a near-total shutdown of China’s economy and transportation, several provinces in China have downgraded their emergency levels. Many of the makeshift hospitals in the city of Wuhan have been closed down after sending back the recovered patients. On the day of the visit of Xi Jinping, only 19 new cases of infections were reported.

The initial weeks saw a lot of cover-ups, misinformation, and underreported figures. The restrictions were forced upon the citizens, movements were stopped, and many people who left their cities during the Chinese New Year, have yet to return back to their places. The initial efforts by whistle-blowers, the death of these doctors and the replacement of the leadership at Hubei have been some of the setbacks in the country. This could be an effort by the President to boost the morale of the workers and people who have been affected by the government measures in the past months, where the decline in the numbers can be seen as a step towards victory.

By 8 March 2020, Baidu Migration Index reported about 65 per cent of people have begun to return to work and their cities. China has stated that it will be able to become fully functional by June 2020.

What does it mean?
The visit can be seen as a symbolic landmark indicating that the threat levels in China have fallen, making his visit a successful PR exercise. Second, the positive signs in China can be seen as a start to the decline in the intensity of the virus outbreak.

Finally, multiple related issues remain with the fatigue of the workers, the buildings collapsing and post-trauma healing along with economic recovery and reduction in the cases globally.

Afghanistan: Two Presidents in Kabul, and the Taliban rejection of ‘phased release’ of the prisoners

What happened?
This week Afghanistan faced five different but interrelated developments after two weeks of the US-Taliban peace deal.  First, the two parallel oath-taking ceremonies for the President by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah took place, on 9 March. The swearing-in ceremony of Ashraf Ghani was attended by the US and NATO, General Scott Miller and Zalmay Khalilzad. During the oath-taking ceremony, a rocket attack was reported, which was later claimed by Islamic State. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, issued a statement saying, “the US strongly condemned the creation of ‘parallel government’ and any use of force to resolve political differences”.  Later, on 11 March Ghani’s spokesperson also announced an official order, to dissolve the post of Chief Executive.

Second, the Afghan government on 11 March, issued a decree for a phased release of 1500 Taliban prisoners, as a first step towards the intra-Afghan talks. Ashraf Ghani also asked prisoners to provide, “a written guarantee to not return to battlefield”. The release of prisoners was supposed to begin after four days of the decree. Suhail Shaheen spokesperson of the Taliban said, “We reject Ghani’s phased release of prisoners”. Also, the Taliban said that the signed deal can only further progress, after the release of all 5000 prisoners. Third, on 11 March, UNSC unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing the US-Taliban peace deal. Fourth, the US began the withdrawal of troops over the week, to facilitate the reduction of troop numbers to 8600 from 13600 in 135 days of signing the US-Taliban deal. Colonel Sonny Leggett, US force Afghanistan, said, “In accordance with US-Afghan joint declaration and the US-Taliban agreement, USFOR-A (US Forces Afghanistan) has begun its reduction of force according to the deal”.

Fifth, on 12 March, the US General said, Taliban has failed to reduce the number of attacks, as after the deal, around 40 people have been killed. US Marine General Kenneth McKenzie said “I would not consider what the Taliban is doing as consistent with any path to going forward or to come to a final end state agreement with the current government of Afghanistan.”

What is the background?
The US-Taliban deal was signed to end 18 years of US involvement in Afghanistan. After several rounds of negotiations between the US and Taliban, the deal came into place on 29 February. The deal seeks to address four major aspects. First, an intra-Afghan dialogue on 10 March. Second, a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Third, the withdrawal of all the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan in a timeline of 14 months. Fourth, guarantee from the Taliban, of not letting anyone use Afghan soil as a launchpad of attacks against the US.

The results of Afghan election held on 28 September declared Ashraf Ghani as president. Ghani attained 50.62 per cent whereas Abdullah Abdullah secured 39.52 per cent of votes. Abdullah Abdullah disputed the election results and pledged to form his parallel government. Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy of the US, had made several attempts to negotiate between the two leaders, over the contradicting internal governance of Afghanistan.

The rival leadership faced an identity crisis over the week. Ashraf Ghani’s oath-taking ceremony was attended by diplomats indicating an international acceptance towards his leadership. On the other hand, many suggest that Abdullah Abdullah has greater domestic support including several Mujahedeen and political leaders

In 2014 a similar situation arose between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, where the US secretory John Kerry intervened to broker a power-sharing agreement, and a new position of Chief Executive was created for Abdullah Abdullah.

During the week, the phased prisoner release was criticized by the Taliban. The Afghan government sighted security reasons for not releasing 5000 prisoners at one go and also flagged that there are differences in the wordings of the agreement between the US and the Afghan government, and the US and Taliban peace deal. On the other hand, Taliban, a spokesperson stated, ‘that a list of all 5000 prisoners has been given to the US’ and ‘a vehicle has been sent to Bagram prison to receive ‘freed fighters”. They believe the prisoner swap, may work as a confidence-building measure and pave way for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

What does it mean?
First, the Taliban is not willing to step back after the Afghanistan government’s stand over prisoners swap. This may lead to an escalation of violence, between the government forces and the Taliban. Second, the dispute over the phased release of prisoners and the political infighting between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah may delay intra-Afghan talks. According to the US Taliban deal, the intra-Afghan talks were to begin on the 10 March 2020. Further, the inauguration of a parallel government has brought the idea of intra-afghan talks to a standstill due to difficulty in forming an inclusive group that could represent the Afghan government.

Third, the withdrawal of troops by the US without any progress in intra-Afghan talks indicates the limited interest of the US in the internal politics of Afghanistan.   Fourth, the UNSC resolution in support of the US-Taliban deal gives greater importance to the Taliban as an actor at the international platform

 

Russia and Saudi Arabia at loggerheads: The brewing oil war

What happened?
Brent crude oil prices dropped to significantly low levels, comparable to the price level during the Gulf War of 1991. Both Saudi Arabia and Russia have upped the ante, and increased production, pushing the prices to a new low.

Saudi Arabia announced its plan to increase the oil supply by 25 per cent in April, amounting to approximately 12.3 million barrels per day. Russia too responded by announcing that it can pump an additional 500,000 barrels per day. This caused the Brent Crude to plunge by 24 per cent on 9 March 2020. Additionally, the prices of the US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) also dropped to a large extent.

What is the background?
On 6 March 2020, the OPEC meeting in Vienna proposed to cut the production of the crude oil by 1.5 million barrels per day, given the low demand due to COVID-19 in manufacturing economies. A production cut would not allow the prices to slump further. However, the proposal required Russian assent to come into force. The talks between OPEC countries and Russia failed in this regard, and both countries resorted to a pricing war. Other players like Iraq and Nigeria also have announced an increase in their production and supply.

What does it mean?
The “oil war” has shaken the hydrocarbon market and has raised the fears of another economic crisis that the market is unprepared to face. It is essential to understand what it means to different stakeholders. First, the “oil alliance” between Saudi Arabia and Russia is under stress. It further strains the relationship between OPEC and non-OPEC countries, ultimately hurting the market.

Second, Saudi Arabia is at an offensive position, as it seems to be tapping its strategic inventories to increase the supply of crude. Its announcement of 25 percent hike in production, is above the sustainability and capacity of its state-owned company Aramco. Third, the price war might be targeted at the US shale oil that has consistently reduced the market share of the OPEC+ countries. A drop in price would induce the buyers to go to the OPEC+ rather than the US. Texas, one of the largest oil producers in the country, is staring at losses due to the situation.

Fourth, the world economy is in a critical and peculiar state, where demand, as well as production, has reduced because of COVID-19 and so is the case with the crude prices because of the so-called “oil war”. If there are no negotiations in the near future with economies of scale in operation, the oil market will continue to plunge.

Fifth, cheaper crude oil would mean a threat to the climate. If manufacturing market returns back to normalcy and the price of oil continues to be cheap, carbon output would certainly be higher.

The “oil war” that has affected the supply side is combined with the outbreak of the epidemic, which is affecting the demand side. The price war might be a failure of negotiations, but all stakeholders are at a gruelling loss.

 

Also, during this week…. 

Joe Biden gains the upper hand in the Democratic nomination race
Joe Biden has solidified his position as a front runner in the Democratic race to take on the US President Donald Trump in November’s white house election. The former vice president gained in the latest primaries, including in Michigan over his main competitor Bernie Sanders.

A total of six US states had gone to the polls to select their Democratic candidate for 2020 presidential elections. After some initial disappointment in the poll results, Biden slowly gathered lead in four of the six US states of Idaho, Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi, while Sanders was victorious in North Dakota. With these results, questions are raised about whether Mr Sanders would continue in the race.

Russian Parliament approves extension of President Putin’s Term
On Tuesday, Russia’s national Parliament has backed the constitutional amendments paving the way for the next step of the approval process, which is to get a nationwide vote in April. The new reforms would allow President Putin to remain in power until 2036 after his current term ends in 2024. President Putin had previously denied that the new amendments were meant to extend his grip on power when they were introduced in January.

Besides, the new amendments would give the Parliament more power, including the authority to nominate the head of the government expanding the role of Russia’s state council. It would introduce “faith in God” to Russia’s constitution and specify marriage as a union between “a man and a woman.” The president is also given the power to fire judges in the country’s higher courts and reject laws passed by Parliament.

Another wave of Saudi Arabia crackdown on Royal Family
In the latest sweep of detentions against the alleged challengers to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rule including two of the Kingdom’s most prominent royals, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al Saud were arrested on Friday and accused of treason. Prince Mohammed’s brother, Nawaf was also reported to be detained with him at a desert camp. There are reports that the sweep widened to include dozens of interior ministry officials, senior army officers and others suspected of supporting a coup attempt.

While Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom’s de facto ruler, appears to be further tightening his grip on power, the Saudi government has not officially responded to any reports on detentions.

EU to pay migrants to go back to their countries
On Thursday, the EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson announced a scheme to address the migrant crisis in agreement with the Greek government. The temporary scheme would be open for only one month for all those migrants who have arrived before 1 January. The scheme has a provision for the EU to pay €2,000 to each migrant who is willing to go back to his home country.

This month, hundreds of migrants and refugees have reached Greek islands near Turkey. The camps on those islands are overcrowded. These camps were designed for about 6000, and the camps already have nearly 42,000 asylum seekers, which includes around 14,000 children. The EU Home Affairs minister has said in total 5000 migrants would be eligible for the “voluntary return”.

Turkey and Russia agree on details of the Idlib ceasefire deal
Earlier this week, the Russian delegation arrived in Ankara to discuss the details of the new ceasefire deal in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. After four days of talks, both the countries have agreed mainly on details of the ceasefire. Under the deal, it is agreed upon ending all military activities in Idlib with joint patrolling carried out along the strategic M4 highway linking Syria’s east and west and establish a security corridor either side of it.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has said that the first joint patrol of Turkey and Russia on the M4 highway in Idlib will be conducted on 15 March. He also added that Turkey and Russia would establish joint coordination centers in the region

 

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