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The Pandemic’s Next Phase
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The World Health Organization says the coronavirus has plateaued but cases remain “unacceptably high,” violence at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is followed by rockets and airstrikes, and more than 2,100 asylum-seekers land on an Italian island in 24 hours.
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WHO Announces Virus “Plateau”
Countries across Europe are beginning to reopen after months of restrictions. U.S. President Joe Biden has endorsed a proposal to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines, paving the way for accelerated production. But rather than achieving herd immunity, the world appears to be entering a new phase of the coronavirus pandemic, with more contagious variants spreading rapidly in places without stringent regulations or sufficient vaccines.
In a Monday briefing, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the world had reached a plateau in new cases and deaths from the coronavirus, with numbers declining overall in most regions. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged that the plateau was “unacceptably high.” Nearly 90,000 COVID-19 deaths were recorded worldwide last week.
Thousands of those deaths occurred in India, where new cases and deaths have remained at near record daily highs for days—and are still likely undercounted. Calls are growing for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to impose a new nationwide lockdown, as desperate pleas for oxygen, ventilators, and access to hospital care fill up Twitter feeds. The catastrophic surge has brought other challenges, including more contagious variants and a rare but potentially fatal fungal infection accompanying the virus.
Global health threat? Experts are concerned India’s crisis could already have regional effects. A WHO official said on Monday that it had reclassified the triple-mutant variant spreading in India, known as B.1.617, as a “variant of concern,” suggesting that the strain could pose a threat even farther beyond India’s borders. WHO added that existing vaccines “remain effective at preventing disease and death” among patients infected with the variant.
Meanwhile, Malaysia announced a new lockdown on Monday amid a third wave driven in part by more infectious variants. Without mass vaccination drives, cases are rising elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia, as well as in Latin America—with potential consequences for political leaders.
Nepal’s prime minister suffers blow. Across the border from India, Nepal now faces a staggering surge in COVID-19 cases as officials have struggled to enforce quarantine measures for those entering the country. Cases have risen by 1,200 percent in recent weeks alongside India’s second wave, and Nepal is now experiencing similar oxygen shortages, with hospitals operating under extreme strain.
Some government officials have laid blame for the crisis with Nepal’s prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, who at first assured the country that the situation was “under control” and downplayed the risk. Oli lost a parliamentary vote of confidence on Monday, clearing the way for parties to form a new coalition government.
Hours later, Oli finally issued a public call for help from the international community with an op-ed in the Guardian. “Nepal’s history is one of hardship and struggle, yet this pandemic is pushing even us to our limits,” he wrote.
Bolsonaro under fire. Brazil is also still grappling with its own pandemic crisis, with health officials in the hard-hit Amazonas state now bracing again for the worst. Brazil’s latest surge has received less international attention and aid than India’s—an outcome complicated in part by President Jair Bolsonaro’s bombastic brand of diplomacy and his own attitude toward COVID-19. Just last week, his finance minister said China “invented the virus.”
Bolsonaro faces an ongoing challenge from Brazil’s Senate, where an investigation into his handling of the pandemic reconvenes on Tuesday. The probe focuses in particular on the president’s refusal to introduce lockdowns and his failure to procure enough vaccines while promoting misinformation. Although the investigation isn’t likely to lead to Bolsonaro’s impeachment, it could hurt him at the polls next year.
What We’re Following Today
Jerusalem violence escalates. At least 20 Palestinians, including nine children, were killed in the Gaza Strip on Monday night by Israeli airstrikes, after Hamas militants fired rockets toward Jerusalem. Violence erupted in Jerusalem earlier Monday when Israeli security forces entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound firing rubber bullets and stun grenades, leaving more than 300 Palestinians and dozens of police officers injured.
The brewing conflict came to a head on Monday, when a march for Jerusalem Day—which commemorates Israel’s capture of the Old City—was planned. Tensions have also risen in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision on forced evictions of Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Israeli authorities changed the route of the march at the last minute to avoid Arab areas of the Old City, but Hamas followed through on its threat to retaliate if security forces did not leave the mosque and another area in East Jerusalem.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the attacks from Gaza need to stop “immediately” and called for both sides to reduce tensions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mince his words in responding to the day’s events. “Israel will respond very forcefully,” he said in a speech. “Whoever strikes us will pay a heavy price.”
Migrant arrivals swell on Italian island. More than 2,100 asylum-seekers landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in a 24-hour period between Sunday and Monday, with multiple smugglers’ boats arriving amid calm seas. Nine other boats carrying more than 700 migrants were intercepted by the Libyan coast guard on Monday, including one that capsized; 23 people are feared drowned. The arrivals on Lampedusa quickly overwhelmed its migrant housing center, leaving officials concerned about public health.
Despite the pandemic curbing migration in 2020, the incidents in the Mediterranean Sea show departures from Libya may be on the rise again. On Monday, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said other EU countries should offer assistance to Italy. He called for more “predictable mechanisms” to address the arrival of refugees on European shores, including a system for disembarkation and relocation.
More Belarus sanctions? The European Union plans to impose a new round of sanctions on Belarusian officials over its disputed presidential election last August, which the opposition says was rigged. Long-serving President Aleksandr Lukashenko continues to consolidate power, while opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya works to rally support from international leaders. EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said he hopes the sanctions package will be adopted “in the coming weeks.”
The mass protests that followed the election have largely petered out after months of crackdowns by security forces. But Tikhanovskaya, in exile in Lithuania, is determined to get Western countries to take stronger measures against the regime—and to “stay consistent” in their sanctions, as she told FP’s Amy Mackinnon in February.
Keep an Eye On
Teachers targeted in Myanmar. The military regime has suspended more than 11,000 academic staff across Myanmar amid continued strikes in protest of the Feb. 1 coup. As in the past, students and academics are integral to Myanmar’s current civil disobedience movement, and the suspensions came as universities and colleges began to reopen after shutting their doors for the pandemic.
The junta has also targeted prominent cultural figures with ties to the opposition. Myanmar poet Khet Thi, whose work resisted the junta, died after being detained for interrogation, his family said on Sunday. His body was returned to his family missing internal organs.
Taiwan tensions on the global stage. Denmark’s decision to invite Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to Monday’s Copenhagen Democracy Summit has angered the Chinese government, whose embassy in Denmark said activities promoting Taiwanese independence were “bound to fail.” The incident came alongside rising tensions over calls for Taiwan to attend a key WHO meeting later this month—something the G-7 countries and Taipei are fighting for but Beijing opposes.
As the United States prepares for a new era of great-power competition with China, Taiwan’s stock is also rising in Washington, as FP’s Robbie Gramer reported last week.
Odds and Ends
A man found himself clinging to a glass-bottomed suspension bridge 330 feet over a mountain in northeast China after sudden winds blew away several pieces of the floor. Viral photos show the man trapped on the damaged bridge surrounded by holes leading to a steep drop. He was stuck for more than half an hour but reportedly suffered no physical harm. The incident raised concerns among commenters: Glass bridges are an especially popular tourist attraction in China, and this wasn’t anywhere near the highest one.
Chloe Hadavas contributed to this report.