The deserted cities – X

Image: Silvia Faustino Saes


Comments on recent events in international politics

November begins and the pandemic numbers skyrocket around the world. There are already about 600 thousand new daily cases. The death toll surpassed the peak of late July: more than 7.500 daily deaths. We quickly move on to 50 million cases. We have surpassed 1,2 million deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, eight months ago. Just three countries – the United States, India and Brazil – with around 23 million, account for half of the cases worldwide. The three add up to more than 520 deaths. Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and Argentina, in that order, are among the twelve countries with the most deaths per million inhabitants. The United States is also among them.

the desert cities

In Europe, cases increased a lot last week: almost 50 thousand in a single day in France. Italy, Spain, England, Belgium, Poland, Germany, all of them among the ten countries with the most daily cases. French President Emmanuel Macron, as at the beginning of spring, decreed a new confinement, until the first of December. Last Friday, non-essential trade was closed, movements were limited. You cannot leave the house without a permit. It will be possible to go out to “get some air” in the surroundings, but no more than a kilometer from home. Borders have been closed to citizens outside the European community. “We are overwhelmed, we have lost control,” he said. It is feared that another 400 people will die if strict control measures are not taken. There would not be enough beds to care for the pandemic patients. “Before Macron even spoke, business leaders showed their enormous unease over the consequences of the severe restrictions,” said Eusebio Val, correspondent for the Catalan newspaper. La Vanguardia in Paris. Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, president of the main employers' union (Medef [French Business Movement]), warned of the danger of a downturn in the French economy. “The Confederation of Small and Medium Enterprises (CPME) has drawn attention to the fact that companies are much more fragile now than in the first wave of the pandemic and it will be problematic to take on more debt to survive”.

Decide who should die

With nuances, the pandemic grows again across Europe. Deaths from Covid-19 rose by almost 40% in Europe last week compared with the previous week, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Hospital intensive care units are starting to fill up, said organization spokeswoman Margaret Harris. It is necessary to observe the map of the pandemic in Europe, the darker tones of Belgium and the Czech Republic; followed by France, the Netherlands and Slovenia. Cases are growing in Russia, Italy and England. Boris Johnson decreed, on Saturday, the total closure of the country for four weeks.

In Belgium, hospitals ask their doctors to continue working, even if they are infected but do not show symptoms, because the health system is at risk of collapsing. With nearly 550 cases and more than 75 deaths, Germany, which has done relatively well in Europe, does not escape the challenges of the pandemic either. As in France, if infections continue at this rate, the health system will quickly reach its limits. The government lost the ability to track contagions. "We don't know the origin of XNUMX% of infections," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

With nearly 20 confirmed cases in 24 hours, alarms were raised. On Wednesday of last week, Merkel advanced new measures to close public life. "We are in a phase of exponential growth in infections, and we must act to avoid a serious national health emergency." “These are tough measures for the whole country,” said the chancellor. As of Monday, November 2nd, bars and restaurants are closed; accommodation in hotels is limited to justified cases. No tourism.

Each one can only go out into the streets in the company of people with whom he lives; or a person from another household. Once again, deserted cities are shrinking, trying to prevent the spread of the pandemic, as in Spain or Italy. In Catalonia, they wonder how it was possible to go from just over a thousand daily cases to the current five thousand. With a health system capable of dealing with a scenario of 1.800 daily cases with a certain normality, at that rate, despite the increase in available beds, in two weeks there would be no way to deal with any other disease other than Covid-19.

The occupation of ICUs grows, the real possibility of collapse has returned; a tragedy in which the “patient's autonomy” must give way to “social and collective benefit”, the criterion used to decide who receives care and who must die. “From 400 ICU beds occupied by Covid-19, it is necessary to start canceling surgeries that allow postponement. From 600, which could happen next week, everything is suspended and only reservations that cannot be postponed remain. Frightening numbers, which go back to what happened in March and April, recalled Adrià Comella, director of the public health system in Catalonia (Catsalut).

With an official unemployment record in Spain of 16,3%, and the rate could approach 20%, if you take into account workers subject to the so-called Temporal Employment Regulation Expedient (ERTE), which allows companies to adopt measures emergency response to the crisis. Among those under 25, unemployment has skyrocketed to 40%, and 1,1 million households have all their members unemployed. The government presented the budget to Congress last week, with an unprecedented 20% increase in public spending, supported by European recovery funds and tax increases that affect, above all, the highest incomes and companies.

a limit situation

After years of reduced investment in public health, the pandemic has highlighted the need to reverse these policies. Oliver Roethig and Adrian Durtschi, union representatives from the service and health sector in Europe, wrote about the dramatic conditions of elderly families in the region. In an increasingly precarious situation, the crisis took them to an extreme situation. Between 30% and 60% of those killed by Covid-19 in Europe were elderly people in these residences, “frighteningly ill-prepared to deal with the crisis”, with a reduction in personnel, poorly prepared personnel and not enough teams. Spending was cut to save money instead of prioritizing saving lives. The result could only be a disaster, they assure. Paralysis has become widespread in nursing homes during the pandemic.

There was a time when workers in the sector said something about their working conditions. So it was better for them and for the elderly. But that's a thing of the past. Collective bargaining ended and working conditions deteriorated. “Investing in care implies improving the level of staff, so that patients receive the dignified care they deserve”, say Roethig and Durtschi. The problem is not a lack of resources. The money exists, but it is distributed upwards. Private investors look for “attractive opportunities”. They speculate on property, load the company with debts and mortgages. They buy back shares, pay off debt and distribute dividends to investors, in addition to other forms of wealth extraction. As they withdraw their profits, the company goes bankrupt. "But these predators know that governments will have to intervene, as they will not be able to leave the elderly on the street."

the end of Pax americana

“I agree,” replied Josep Borrell, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union. The most important event of our time is the end of the hundred years of American Pax, said Professor J. HH Weiler, co-editor in chief of the European Journal of International Law. The United States remains a formidable power, but its ability to lead economically, politically and morally has diminished considerably, he added. 19,” recalled Borrell. Biden explained why, in his opinion, the United States must regain the international leadership it lost. In an article published in the magazine Foreign Affairs, in the March/April edition, Biden said that the United States must harden its position in relation to China, build a united front with its allies to confront it. He speaks as if the wheel of history could turn backwards.

It is said – and rightly so, Borrell said – “that we are witnessing an intensification of tensions between the United States and China. Regardless of who wins the next US presidential election, this rivalry between the two countries is likely to be the main driver of world politics.” With China, the presence of the United States in multilateral issues is in dispute – such as Covid-19 or global warming; economic competition and technological development; and rivalry in geopolitical scenarios. From what is directly related to Chinese sovereignty – such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the East China Sea – to a network of regional alliances with which Washington intends to limit Chinese growth. In this network are Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, while Washington is trying to rebuild its relations with Vietnam and consolidate them with other countries in the region.

For Robert Kaplan, holder of the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the United States urgently needs to revise its debate on relations with China. "At the current level of tension between Washington and Beijing, one cannot simply go on without an incident occurring that both sides would later regret," he said. This is not a matter of goodwill, but of urgently establishing rules to deal with conflict and to prevent the accidental emergence of military hostilities or cyber-conflicts that endanger global peace and stability. Raja Mohan, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, of the National University of Singapore, suggests to the next president of the United States that, if he wants a sustainable strategy – that costs little, capable of enthusing his allies – he should reinforce the Asian nationalists. Unlike in the West, where nationalist movements are not popular, in Asia the opposite is true, Mohan said.

The backyard

Latin America is almost not present in these analyses. Whenever the region is once again treated as the “backyard” of the United States, little attention is paid to its role on the international stage. At the beginning of Trump's term, governments aligned with Washington prevailed in Latin America: Colombia, his main ally; Macri's in Argentina; Piñera's Chile; then Bolsonaro in Brazil; Bolivia, after the coup; that of Ecuador, after its president did a 180-degree turn on his predecessor's policy. Then Lacalle was added in Uruguay; along with the traditional alignment of Central America with the United States (except in the case of Nicaragua).

But things started to move again. Changes have arrived in Argentina and Bolivia, there are elections in February in Ecuador, Bolsonaro's performance in Brazil weakened him. Nor does the current government of Mexico have the same relations with Washington as the previous ones. In Brazil, predicted José Dirceu – head of the Civil Cabinet of the presidency during the Lula government –, a storm is approaching, “the combination of a social, economic and institutional crisis that will put everyone to the test”.

In Chile, the overwhelming triumph (just over 78%) of votes in favor of revising the 1980 Constitution, with a reasonable electoral turnout (similar to the first round of the 2013 presidential election, in which half of the electorate voted), is another element to consider in the Latin American political scene. Former socialist president Ricardo Lagos (2002-2006) liked to say that, in Chile, institutions worked. During his period, important reforms were introduced in Pinochet's constitution. But the current crisis has made it clear that, if they worked, they worked poorly. In April, the Constituent Assembly will be elected, which will probably open a scenario of new political struggles in the country.

During his first term, Trump's main objective in Latin America was to defeat the government of Nicolás Maduro. For this he mobilized all his allies, mainly Colombia and Brazil, countries with a wide border with Venezuela. The Brazilian chancellery has just declared secrecy for the diplomatic messages exchanged on the visit of the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to Boa Vista, on the border with Venezuela, on September 18th.

Nevertheless, after three years, the results of the White House's policies towards Venezuela "are quite mediocre", evaluated the Washington Office for Latin American Affairs (WOLA), a think tanks headquartered in the US capital. Careful to avoid being thought of as part of the Maduro government, the 53-page WOLA report – “Impact of financial and oil sanctions on the Venezuelan economy”, published last month by Luis Oliveros – cannot hide that the sanctions of Washington aggravated poverty and deteriorated the standard of living of the population.

As occurred during the time of the “contras”, financed by the Ronald Reagan government in its struggle against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 80s, the sanctions worsened the living conditions of the population and created extreme tensions on the affected governments. Then come the calls for “free” elections, with the opposition financed by Washington and the government discredited by the serious consequences that sanctions have on the lives of the population. “For us, it doesn't matter who wins in the United States,” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said last Saturday. Whoever wins, “the attacks against Venezuela will not cease”. A Trump triumph could give new impetus to his plans against Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. On the other hand, the policy towards Cuba could vary, depending on who is the winner of the elections. Biden would possibly resume the policies of Obama, who reestablished diplomatic relations with the Cuban government, without this meaning the end of the blockade, something that would require changes in the legislation.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.



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