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Morning Brief

As Coronavirus Recedes in Europe, Citizens Demand Answers

As the virus wanes in some countries, grieving families want to know how it all went so wrong.

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte waits while the new government's confidence vote is being held on September 10, 2019 during at the Senate in Rome.
Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte waits while the new government's confidence vote is being held on September 10, 2019 during at the Senate in Rome. Filippo Monteforte / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: France and Italy launch public investigations into government coronavirus responses, North Korea issues a U.S. election threat, and Boko Haram kills 81 in Nigeria.

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As Europe Counts The Dead, One Question: Why?

In what is likely become a global trend as more countries look back on their coronavirus outbreaks, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is to be questioned by prosecutors over his government’s initial response to the pandemic. The prosecutors are working on behalf of families who have lost loved ones as Italy emerges from one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world. The families had initially organized on Facebook, in a group that now has 56,000 members.

Chief among the relatives’ concerns is to uncover how the government’s initial reaction to the coronavirus pandemic unfolded and why hospitals were ill-equipped. “We’re not interested in convictions, we just want to understand what happened. If we understand what happened we can change a system that made mistakes,” said Luca Fusco, the president of the group representing the families.

The demand for an inquiry has spread to France, where the chief prosecutor of Paris, Remy Heitz, has opened an investigation. On Monday, Heitz said he was considering charges including involuntary homicide. Any probe should not worry French President Emmanuel Macron, as his title makes him immune from prosecution.

Sweden, which did not enact the same social distancing rules as its neighbors, now has the 16th highest death toll globally. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has pledged to fast-track an investigative commission to study the country’s response, after initially saying he would wait until the outbreak had subsided.

Britain’s belated lockdown. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing increasing criticism as the U.K. death toll mounts. Although the number of new cases is now decreasing, the official U.K. death toll per million residents (606) is among the worst in the world—and higher than the rate in Spain, Italy, France, Sweden, and the United States.

Opposition leader Keir Starmer has attacked Johnson for saying he was “proud” of the government’s response and a key scientific advisor declared yesterday that imposing a lockdown one week earlier would have likely prevented 20,000 of the country’s more than 40,000 deaths.

What about the U.S.? In the United States, where total coronavirus cases passed 2 million, Democrats have pushed for a bipartisan 9/11-style commission, although Republicans have focused their energy on an inquiry into China and the World Health Organization’s handling of the pandemic.

One question for a future inquiry could be why health experts, including Anthony Fauci, advised Americans that wearing masks was not necessary early on in the outbreak. A new study by researchers at Cambridge and Greenwich universities found that public mask wearing was twice as effective in limiting the virus’s spread versus only wearing one when while symptomatic.

The United States is still far from defeating the coronavirus. A count by The New York Times showed that new cases are increasing in 21 states—including California, Florida, and Texas.


What We’re Following Today

Poland troop plan falters. After U.S. President Donald Trump said he would remove 9,500 troops from Germany, plans to relocate troops further east in Poland have fallen into disarray, Reuters reports. A plan announced in June of last year to send 1,000 U.S. troops to Poland permanently has been held up over disputes over how much of the bill Poland would cover, where to station the troops, and whether they would gain legal immunity while stationed there. Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Pawel Jablonski has called the plan “a very complicated process.”

Writing in Foreign Policy on Tuesday, Michael John Williams questioned the idea that Trump’s removal of troops from Germany should be seen as a punishment for Berlin’s supposed intransigence. That thinking “is based on three false but common assumptions,” he writes. “That the U.S. military is in Germany solely for the benefit of its hosts, that the United States and Germany share a common threat perception, and that the argument over defense spending is ultimately about spending a compulsory 2 percent of GDP on defense.”

Boko Haram attack in Nigeria. At least 81 people have been killed in a suspected Boko Haram attack in northeastern Nigeria on Tuesday, according to a statement by Borno state authorities. Nigerian military spokesman Sagir Musa said they are “committed to investigating the circumstances of these callous attacks by desperate Boko Haram criminals and the bandits on innocent civilians.” He added that the mass killing was not only carried out by Boko Haram but with the Islamic State’s West Africa branch, ISWAP, as well.

China exerts Zoom pressure. Video conferencing software giant Zoom temporarily closed an account of a U.S.-based China activist after he hosted an international call commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Axios reports. According to Zoom, the account was shuttered to “comply with local laws,” suggesting Zoom bent to pressure from China. The activist, Zhou Fengsuo has run afoul of Chinese tech censorship before: His LinkedIn account was blocked from viewers in China in 2019.

Ghani speaks. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will give a video address to a U.S.-based audience today in an event hosted by the Atlantic Council and the U.S. Institute of Peace. The speech comes just as the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with Ghani to advance the goal of intra-Afghan peace talks.


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Keep an Eye On

Libya talks beginning. As fighting continues, the United Nations reported that Libya’s two warring factions have begun a new round of cease-fire talks. The Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli and the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) have met with U.N. negotiators separately according to the U.N. Mission in Libya. GNA forces—after breaking a monthslong LNA siege—have recently pushed eastward toward Sirte, a move that “concerned” the U.N.

Pyongyang tells Washington to butt out. North Korea has given a cryptic warning to the United States to stay out of its current dispute with South Korea, as it “would be good not only for the U.S. interests but also for the easy holding of upcoming presidential election.” The statement was made by Kwon Jong Gun, the director-general for U.S. affairs at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry amid a raising of tensions with its southern neighbor over North Korean defectors dropping leaflets across the border. Seeking to mollify Pyongyang, South Korea said it would mount a legal challenge against defector organizations that facilitate the practice.

Writing in Foreign Policy on June 1, Duyeon Kim and Leif-Eric Easley wrote about why the world may see more erratic behavior from North Korea in the future.


Odds and Ends

Would you want to live in a country free of any coronavirus restrictions if it meant being haunted by a roving brood of feral chickens? At this point, the answer is probably an unequivocal yes. The residents of Titirangi, a suburb of Auckland in New Zealand, almost had their feral chicken problem—raging since 2008—solved until the coronavirus struck. Lockdown measures meant the search for the birds was postponed, allowing the chicken population to multiply and disturb locals.

Now that New Zealand has declared victory over the coronavirus and returned to normal, residents can resume their battle against the birds—as long as they can manage the fowl sympathizer in their midst. “There’s a very kind-hearted local who feeds them and has kept feeding them so the numbers have started to spike up again,” Greg Presland, the local leader charged with dealing with the problem, told the Guardian. “I know who it is and I can’t make her stop,” Presland said. “I’ve tried.”


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com.

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

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