Morning Brief

South Korea Shows That Defeating Coronavirus Isn’t Quick or Easy

As even the best-managed countries ease lockdown restrictions, coronavirus cases are stubbornly rising.

Christians wearing face masks attend a service at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, May 10.
Christians wearing face masks attend a service at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, May 10. AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: South Korea sees a spike in coronavirus cases, Libya’s civil war intensifies, and Argentina faces a key debt deadline.

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S. Korea and Germany Show How Difficult It Is to Tame Pandemic

As governments across the globe move to ease lockdowns, countries that have been celebrated for besting the coronavirus are proving how difficult an enemy it is to vanquish.

On Sunday, Germany’s R number (a value used to estimate the ability of the disease to spread from person to person) increased to more than one, meaning the coronavirus could again spread exponentially among the population. The Robert Koch Institute, the government public health agency that produces coronavirus statistics, warned that the R number estimate was “linked to a degree of uncertainty” but would nonetheless “observe the development very closely.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel announced an easing of restrictions last Wednesday, but has said an “emergency brake” would be applied and previous lockdown measures would resume if cases started to rise.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in said the country was in “in a prolonged war” as daily coronavirus cases spiked to their highest point in a month, with 34 new cases reported. The mayor of Seoul effectively ordered pubs and nightclubs to be shut after a man in his late 20s infected 24 people in the nightlife district of Itaewon.

China, the original virus epicenter, reported its highest number of daily coronavirus cases since April 28 with 17; five of those cases were traced to Wuhan.

A good problem to have. Of course, although the trend is worrying, these are the kinds of numbers that the worst-hit countries would gladly trade places for. The United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain—the three countries with the most confirmed coronavirus cases—together reported approximately 26,000 new cases on May 10. The United States made up the vast majority of that figure with over 20,000 new cases reported. The bad news is compounded by the revelation that the White House is now facing its own localized coronavirus outbreak.

How are other countries handling reopening? Writing in Foreign Policy, Amanda Sloat looked at 65 countries battling the coronavirus pandemic and found that a desire for fresh air (and a haircut) was nearly universal.

What We’re Following Today

China refutes U.S. allegations. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Friday amended a visa rule for Chinese journalists entering the United States to work for foreign news outlets in the latest tit-fot-tat battle between the United States and China over the status of journalists in both countries.

Under the new rule, the visas of Chinese journalists will only be valid for 90 days—although they can be renewed for further 90-day periods. In March, China banned U.S. journalists from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post from working in mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Macao.

On Saturday night, China’s Foreign Ministry mounted a defense from repeated U.S. claims of a Chinese cover-up surrounding the origins of coronavirus by posting a 30,000 word rebuttal on its website. It begins by quoting a phrase often atttributed to Abraham Lincoln: “As Lincoln said, you can fool some of the people all the time and fool all the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Libya conflict escalates. Libya’s civil war intensified over the weekend as the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, bombarded Tripoli with artillery fire. Haftar’s forces have been trying to wrest control of Tripoli away from the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA) for the past 13 months. Tripoli’s remaining airport was targeted on Saturday by rockets that destroyed fuel tanks and caused shrapnel to come close to a passenger jet preparing for takeoff.

The UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said that Saturday’s airport strike was “one in a series of indiscriminate attacks, most of which are attributable to pro-LNA forces.” UNSMIL added that up to 15 civilians have reportedly been killed in May alone, with a further 50 injured.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan— whose military is cooperating with the GNA—said that Haftar’s attacks on what he deemed Turkish interests in Libya could soon make his forces “legitimate” targets. “Even the efforts of countries that provide him with unlimited financial support and weapons will not be able to save him,” Erdogan said, referring to Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

Writing in Foreign Policy in March, Jalel Harchaoui predicted such an escalation, warning that “Yet another clash between the two main Libya camps is now brewing, and events in recent weeks suggest that the fighting will be more devastating than at any time before.” In April, Emadeddin Badi pointed a finger at the UAE, arguing in FP that “Emirati support effectively affords Haftar complete impunity on the international stage.”

Argentina default deadline. Argentina reaches its self-imposed deadline today on a debt deal with its international creditors, having already extended the deadline from May 8. Argentina has attempted to negotiate with its lenders over restructuring its $65 billion debt, asking creditors to accept a 62 percent “haircut” in interest payments.

Writing on Twitter on Saturday, Argentinian President Alberto Fernández said he will look at next steps if creditors fail to accept his terms. Although today’s deadline is self-imposed, a much more concrete date looms on May 22 when Argentina is due to deliver a $500 million interest payment.

Keep an Eye On

IMF issues another growth warning. The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, has warned that the institution’s previous forecast on a global economic contraction of 3 percent may have underestimated the extent of the global economic downturn. “With no immediate medical solutions, more adverse scenarios might unfortunately materialize for some economies,” Georgieva said. Speaking at a virtual event hosted by European University Institute, Georgieva said uncertainty about the behavior of the coronavirus made economic projections difficult.

Iran asks for U.S. prisoner exchange. Amid building tension that has boiled over into violence in recent months, Iran has said it is ready for a prisoner exchange with the United States. “We have announced that we are ready without any preconditions to exchange all prisoners and we are prepared to discuss this issue but the Americans have not responded yet,” Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei said. A U.S. official, speaking anonymously, said the United States has received “no offer” of a prisoner exchange. If such an exchange can be brokered, it would be the first exchange since late 2019, when a graduate student, Xiyue Wang, was returned to the United States in exchange for Massoud Soleimani, a medical researcher.

Poland’s presidential election. Now that Poland’s previously scheduled election date has passed, the country’s electoral commission has given the parliament speaker 14 days to announce a new date for a presidential election. Speaking to TVN24, Sylwester Marciniak, the head of the electoral commission, said he expected the election to take place in the next 60 days.

The World This Week

On Wednesday, May 13, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Israel, his first trip outside the country since his March 23 visit to Afghanistan and Qatar. He is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and new Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz, fresh from their swearing-in ceremonies that day.

Also on May 13, the European parliament will convene for its monthly plenary session. It’s expected to debate the EU’s next multiannual financial framework, in place from 2020 to 2026. The parliament will also debate Hungary’s coronavirus legislation which gave Prime Minister Viktor Orban the ability to rule by decree.

Odds and Ends

Top level soccer returns to Europe next weekend—albeit behind closed doors— as the top-two tiers of German soccer, the Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 will pick up where they left off 61 days ago with 11 rounds of matches to go to complete the season. ESPN outlines the unorthodox preparation players have had to get used to, with players only allowed train in small groups and locker rooms given a set capacity limit. Should there be any goals next weekend, players won’t be allowed celebrate together: However the Bundesliga will allow “short contact with elbow or foot.”

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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