Morning Brief

Brazil’s COVID-19 Crisis Is Only Getting Worse

As Brazil’s hospitals reach capacity, a new highly transmissible variant has complicated an already haphazard response.

A worker wearing a protective suit and carrying an umbrella walks past the graves of COVID-19 victims at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery, in Manaus, Brazil, on Feb. 25, 2021. - Brazil surpassed 250,000 deaths due to COVID-19.
A worker wearing a protective suit and carrying an umbrella walks past the graves of COVID-19 victims at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery, in Manaus, Brazil, on Feb. 25, 2021. - Brazil surpassed 250,000 deaths due to COVID-19. MICHAEL DANTAS / AFP) (Photo by MICHAEL DANTAS/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Brazil’s coronavirus crisis stretches hospitals to the limit, India investigates whether Chinese hackers caused October’s Mumbai blackouts, and the European Commission proposes a digital vaccine certificate. 

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Pandemic Pushes Brazilian Hospitals to Breaking Point

Brazil and the United States followed similar trajectories last year. Led by right-wing presidents with little interest in arresting the COVID-19 pandemic as it surged again and again during 2020, both countries now have the highest number of coronavirus infections of any nation.

But while the United States has a new president and has managed to engineer a rapid drop in cases, Brazil has seen no such decline.

Coronavirus deaths are now at an all-time high in Brazil, averaging 1,208 per day over the past week. New cases have also peaked, averaging roughly 54,000 per day over the last seven days.

The increases are pushing medical resources to the limit. Intensive care units in 17 of Brazil’s 26 states are close to capacity, while six more are completely full, O Globo reports. Vaccine distribution, long-touted as the country’s strength, has been slow—only 3.2 percent of the country has been given a vaccine dose, according to Bloomberg. Brazil isn’t even reporting national vaccine data, leaving it up to states to produce the information.

Brazil’s variant. Brazil’s mismanagement of the pandemic has pressing international implications. A new coronavirus variant, first identified in the country, has spread rapidly. According to research due to be published today by a team from Oxford University, Imperial College London, and the University of São Paulo, the variant, known as P.1, is between 1.4 and 2.2 times more transmissible than other variants currently circulating. Worse still, the researchers found that P.1 was more likely to re-infect those that had already contracted the virus, potentially imperiling vaccine efficacy.

A rough 2021 start. The news comes as Bolsonaro’s approval rating, relatively high over the course of the pandemic, has taken a hit. Polls turned sour in February, with the most recent giving him a 32 percent approval rating, down from a pandemic-era high in December of 37 percent. The prospects for a turnaround will depend on whether Brazil’s Congress can decide on how to restart a popular emergency cash payment program for the country’s poor that expired in December.

Is it the end of Bolsonaro? Even as Brazil buckles under the strain of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has structural supports that should keep him safe. On Feb. 1, Brazil’s Congress selected two of his allies to lead the upper and lower chambers, giving the president a buffer against any impeachment attempts.

As Ana Ionova noted in Foreign Policy last month, Bolsonaro can rely on about a quarter of Brazil’s population, the “conservative, wealthier, religious Brazilians preoccupied with issues like crime, the economy, corruption, and family values” to remain by his side no matter what. “For many of them, the president is doing his best to keep Brazil open and the economy afloat,” Ionova wrote.


What We’re Following Today

Mumbai’s malware. Indian authorities are investigating whether a mass blackout in Mumbai last October was the work of Chinese hackers. Anil Deshmukh, the home minister of Maharashtra state, said officials were looking into a connection between the blackout, which left millions without power, and an increased amount of cyberattacks against the state’s power utilities.

The investigation comes after a U.S.-based cybersecurity group published a report that appeared to connect China to the blackout. China has denied the allegations. “China is firmly opposed to such irresponsible and ill-intentioned practice,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said.

Navalny sanctions. The United States is expected to soon sanction a number of individuals over the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. The news comes as the European Union placed fresh sanctions on four Russian officials involved in the arrest and detention of Navalny on Monday. That same day, Russian outlets reported Navalny would serve his two-and-a-half year sentence in a notoriously brutal penal colony.

Armenian elections? Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Monday that he would welcome early elections to settle the country’s political upheaval following its ill-fated war with Azerbaijan last year. “Let’s go to the polls and see whose resignation the people are demanding,” Pashinyan told supporters. If the opposition agrees to elections, Pashinyan will hope for a repeat of his last electoral outing in 2018, when an alliance he led won 70 percent of the vote.


Keep an Eye On

Vaccine passports. The European Commission has proposed a new digital certificate in order to better facilitate travel within the European Union. The document, called a Digital Green Pass, will show a resident’s coronavirus vaccine status as well as recent testing data. The idea has been criticized by France, which is wary of the prospects for discrimination, but has been forcefully backed by Greece, whose economy is highly dependent on tourism. The commission will present its plans on March 17 ahead of a meeting of EU leaders on March 25.

Global vaccine access. On her first day in office, the World Trade Organization’s new director-general has called on member states to encourage pharmaceutical firms to manufacture vaccines in poorer countries in a bid to triple global stocks. “People are dying in poor countries,” WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said. “The world has a normal capacity of production of 3.5 billion doses of vaccines and we now seek to manufacture 10 billion doses.” The situation is most dire in Africa, where only 3.86 million doses have been administered to a population of 1.34 billion.


Odds and Ends

Before Canada has a chance to follow in Australia’s footsteps in seeking to give a slice of Facebook’s and Google’s revenues to local media outlets, a leading newspaper group is seeking a different revenue stream: gambling.

Torstar corporation, which owns the Toronto Star, announced plans on Monday to release an online gambling app in an effort to tap into an industry worth $395 million a year in Ontario. As the Guardian reports, the unusual venture is not the first time Torstar has taken an unorthodox approach to make money: In 2014, the company sold Harlequin, a romantic novel publisher, for roughly $360 million.


That’s it for today. 

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

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