World update: March 24 2020

Stories from Iran, Chad, Brazil, and more

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March 23, 1879: A small Chilean army defeats a much smaller Bolivian force at the Battle of Topáter, which helped trigger the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific. The conflict, fought over a variety of issues including control of Pacific shipping routes and nitrate deposits in the region, ended with Chile victorious over a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance. The resulting settlement saw both defeated countries ceding territory to Chile, including Bolivia’s entire parcel of Pacific coastline.

March 23, 1991: The rebel Revolutionary United Front, with the support of Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, invades Sierra Leone, kicking off the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone Civil War. After a succession of governments and with considerable foreign help, especially from Britain, the Sierra Leone government emerged victorious. The RUF was later charged with committing a vast array of war crimes, and Taylor, after a stint as president of Liberia, was eventually tried and convicted on 11 war crimes counts by the post-war Special Court for Sierra Leone.

March 24, 1944: Dozens of prisoners at a German POW camp near the town of Sagan called Stalag Luft III escape in a daring overnight action. In total 76 prisoners escaped, but 73 of them were eventually tracked down and recaptured, and 50 of those were executed on Adolf Hitler’s orders in what was later deemed a war crime. The escape is best known as the inspiration for the 1963 film The Great Escape.

March 24, 1999: NATO begins its bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in an effort to force an end to the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. It took 78 days of sustained bombardment but the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milošević did ultimately agree to stop fighting and Kosovo became de facto independent. Kosovo declared de jure independence in 2008, but while it is recognized by most nations its independence is still a matter of some dispute—chiefly with Serbia and Russia.


At this point there have been 423,867 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide (+39,247 cases from yesterday), 299,094 of which remain active, with 18,971 reported fatalities (+1971 from yesterday). In addition to its calls for a global ceasefire and for rich nations to help support pandemic response efforts in poorer nations, the United Nations says it wants to see “the waiving of sanctions” worldwide to ensure that countries have access to medical supplies and assistance during the crisis, as well as other basic needs. Needless to say there’s virtually no chance of anything like this happening, though criticism of US sanctions on Iran or the desperation of countries hard hit by the pandemic could lead to individual cases in which leaders decide to defy extraterritorial measures like those imposed by the US or the European Union.

The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor looks at the places and peoples, like the large refugee populations already struggling to survive across Africa, that are at gravest risk from the pandemic:

But away from the White House and Europe’s capitals, there are others who can’t count on the protection of their nation. For the approximately 70 million displaced people worldwide, the pandemic poses a double threat: Crammed refugee camps are especially vulnerable to the spread of disease, and national governments, which, at the best of times, have limited resources to spare for asylum seekers and migrants, will be even less inclined to expend them amid the crisis in support of noncitizens.

Aid agencies fear a looming disaster. “When the virus hits overcrowded settlements in places like Iran, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Greece, the consequences will be devastating,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said last week. “There will also be carnage when the virus reaches parts of Syria, Yemen and Venezuela, where hospitals have been demolished and health systems have collapsed.”

So far, there have been few confirmed positive cases, be it in the Rohingya camps on Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar or Greece’s dingy island encampments of marooned migrants. That’s hardly cause for encouragement. Few of these settlements have the capacity for effective testing.



1 confirmed case of COVID-19 (unchanged), no reported fatalities

The New Arab is reporting that there were dozens of rocket attacks by pro-Syrian government forces on rebel-held towns and villages in Idlib province late Monday. I would take these reports with a grain of salt but they are reflected on the Syria live map and appear to target rebel-controlled territory south of the M4 highway. Damascus has established some control over that highway under the pretext of the joint Turkish-Russian patrols that are supposed to be happening on it, but the presence of rebels south of the roadway is presumably still of concern to Syrian authorities. The artillery strikes raise further questions about whether the Turkish-Russian arrangement can hold for very long.

In northeastern Syria, meanwhile, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have imposed a two week curfew in areas under their control in order to combat the spread of COVID-19. The Syrian government confirmed its first case of the coronavirus on Monday, but given that much of Syria is either an active war zone or was one until fairly recently the ability for authorities to test for and detect infections is pretty minimal, and it’s highly likely there are more undetected cases in the country.


No confirmed cases

The Houthi rebels have reportedly blocked a United Nations-chartered ship from leaving the port of Hudaydah. The vessel has been the site of negotiations between Houthi and Yemen government representatives on implementing the UN-brokered ceasefire between the two side in Hudaydah, but those talks hit an impasse two weeks ago and the government representatives are trying to report back to their bosses. The Houthis haven’t explained why they’re blocking the departure.


1656 confirmed cases (+418), 1 reported fatality (unchanged) in Israel; 59 confirmed cases (unchanged), no reported fatalities in Palestine

Israeli Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein is openly defying an order from the Israeli Supreme Court that he allow the legislature to vote on his potential replacement. Edelstein suspended the Knesset last week ostensibly due to the pandemic, but it’s increasingly clear that he’s just trying to stall for time to save his job and that of his Likud Party boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The court ruled on Monday that he had to reopen the legislature and allow a vote on the speakership, but now Edelstein says he won’t comply because it could undermine negotiations currently under way between Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz on forming a national unity government in order to cope with COVID-19. Netanyahu’s allies are accusing the court of undertaking a judicial coup by ordering the vote, while his opponents are accusing Edelstein of undertaking a legislative coup by ignoring the order.


366 confirmed cases (+39), 19 reported fatalities (+5)

The Egyptian government has instituted a 7 PM to 6 AM curfew effective Wednesday for at least the next two weeks. It’s also extended a suspension on flights and a school and university closure until mid April and the closure of cafes, gyms, and other public places for at least two more weeks.


767 confirmed cases (+205), 1 reported fatality (+1)

Saudi authorities imposed a similar curfew on Monday that’s effective through at least the next three weeks, and reported that country’s first COVID-19 fatality on Tuesday.


24,811 confirmed cases (+1762), 1934 reported fatalities (+122)

Iranian authorities have abruptly canceled the opening of a temporary Doctors Without Borders’ facility that was to have treated COVID-19 patients in the hard hit city of Isfahan. The NGO says it has no idea why and was “surprised” by the move.

The Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline offers another look at the effect US sanctions are having on Iran’s ability to combat the pandemic and what this crisis has revealed about the use of economic sanctions in general:

The Covid-19 pandemic represents only the latest example of how policies intended to affect a single country are counterproductive in an interconnected world. US foreign policy has historically viewed specific countries or nonstate actors as threats and relied on the military to respond to such threats. But in the context of enhanced global interdependence, dangers are more complex, often threatening the entire system rather than any individual nation-state. The United States cannot bomb a virus, and an attitude of “America First” is sure to discourage the cooperation necessary to address a global pandemic.

The spread of the coronavirus demonstrates the extent to which existing approaches are inadequate to addressing planet-sized problems. Whereas North Korea illustrates that even the self-imposed exile pursued by the Kim Jong-un government cannot protect it from the spread of a global pandemic, the outbreak of the virus in Iran reveals both the ineffectiveness and myopia of using sanctions as a tool of foreign policy.



42 confirmed cases (+26), no reported fatalities

The Kyrgyz government has imposed a state of emergency in its three largest cities—Bishkek, Jalal-Abad, and Osh—as well as in three of its provinces. People in those regions will be expected to remain at home. You can decide whether this level of lockdown is congruous with the fact that Kyrgyzstan’s authoritarian and secretive government only acknowledges 42 cases of the virus nationwide.


42 confirmed cases (+8), 1 reported fatality (+1)

Both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, “Chief Executive” Abdullah Abdullah, seem a little shaken by the Trump administration’s decision to slash $1 billion in aid due to their inability to stop feuding with one another, and with good reason as it appears the Afghan people are not pleased with them. Ghani delivered a speech on Tuesday in which he pledged to find some other revenue stream to fill the vacuum, while contending that he’d tried to accommodate Abdullah’s demands but they were simply impossible (supposedly Abdullah wants to be something akin to a prime minister, an office that doesn’t exist under the Afghan constitution). Both Ghani and Abdullah have claimed victory in last year’s presidential election, which was…well, “marked with irregularities” doesn’t really do it justice. Aside from reports of fraud and other questionable behavior, turnout was maybe around 20 percent. They’re each claiming to be president now, which makes the process of negotiating with the Taliban substantially more complicated than it needs to be.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with Abdullah in Kabul on Monday (State Department photo via Flickr)


521 confirmed cases (+54), 10 reported fatalities (+1)

The Indian government has instituted a national lockdown confining people to their homes for the next three weeks. “Daunting” would be wholly inadequate to describe the challenge of enforcing this on a nation of 1.3 billion people. It’s unclear how the Indian government plans to provide for people who can’t stock up on three weeks of basic needs ahead of time. If this seems desperate, well, it is, and probably with good reason:

“We don’t have public evidence we’re in phase three in India,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Disease Dynamics, on the phone from New Delhi. “But there’s anecdotal evidence. The data and modeling show we should be in phase three. And it’s very hard to prevent this next phase from taking place.”

We’ve seen this pattern in China, Iran, Western Europe, and the United States: The coronavirus spread starts off slow and then grows exponentially. “And by then you’re far behind, and catching up is really difficult,” said Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Jha believes it’s more likely that India has between 5,000 and 10,000 cases—10 or 20 times the official numbers—but that most are undetected due to limited testing. If the number of cases doubles every five days, India and its neighbors are less than a month away from a potentially unmanageable number of cases and deaths.


81,218 confirmed cases (+47), 3281 reported fatalities (+4) on the mainland

In something of a pandemic milestone, China’s Hubei province—the initial epicenter of the outbreak—has begun easing restrictions on travel and will remove all bans on movement in and out of the province on Wednesday. The one exception will be the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the epicenter, but restrictions on travel into and out of there should be lifted by April 8.

By contrast, Hong Kong (387 confirmed cases, +30, 4 reported fatalities, unchanged) is still in the midst of its outbreak and has begun to tighten its containment measures:



2 confirmed cases (unchanged), 1 reported fatality (unchanged)

Al Jazeera reports on the COVID-19 situation in Sudan, where the government has now closed the country’s borders to try to limit the pandemic’s impact:


1 confirmed case (+1), no reported fatalities

The inevitable confirmation of a COVID-19 diagnosis in Libya has apparently not completely quelled the appetite for war. Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” on Tuesday shelled a prison in Tripoli along with several other areas across the Libyan capital. The UN has been calling for a ceasefire in Libya to allow all parties to focus on responding to the pandemic. Until Tuesday it had seemed like things were moving in that direction.


40 confirmed cases (unchanged), 1 reported fatality (unchanged)

Militants have ambushed a Nigerian military unit in Yobe state, killing at least 50 Nigerian soldiers. Details seem to be sparse, so it’s unclear for example whether these fighters described as “Boko Haram” were from the actual Boko Haram group or the Islamic State West Africa Province splinter group (I would guess the latter). Nor is it clear when this ambush took place. The Nigerian military was apparently conducting an offensive against the militants in Yobe over the weekend when they were attacked, repelled the attack, and were then attacked again.


4 confirmed cases (+2), no reported fatalities

It’s apparently been a busy few days for Boko Haram, as Chadian officials say 92 of their soldiers were killed in an attack by the Islamist group in the Lake Chad region over the weekend. Again this is likely Islamic State West Africa, not Boko Haram Classic. It’s the deadliest Boko Haram attack in Chad in the insurgent group’s (or groups’) history.


554 confirmed cases (+152), no reported fatalities

South African authorities have instituted their own 21 day lockdown starting Thursday and running through April 16. People will be allowed to leave their homes for critical business like seeking medical care or obtaining food, but otherwise they will be required to shelter in place. The rate of new cases in South Africa is beginning to hit dangerous levels that signal an unchecked outbreak.



495 confirmed cases (+55), 1 reported fatality

Vladimir Putin decided to throw on a hazmat suit and visit a hospital treating COVID-19 patients on Tuesday for some reason, so that must have been fun. Of greater importance, the official COVID-19 figures being promulgated by Putin’s government are coming under some increased scrutiny. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, for example, says testing is not keeping up with the pandemic and that “in reality there are significantly more” infected people than the government statistics indicate. And he’s one of Putin’s buddies. Several doctors have also reportedly questioned the official numbers.


69,176 confirmed cases (+5249), 6820 reported fatalities (+743)

After a two-day decline in COVID-19 fatalities that raised hopes Italy might be turning a corner, the number of fatalities increased on Tuesday by 141 over Monday’s figure of 602. So there goes that trend. The number of newly confirmed cases on Tuesday was on par with Monday’s, though, so there may still be some cause for very tempered optimism.

On the other hand, Angelo Borrelli, the head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency, told reporters on Tuesday that the infection may have spread to upwards of 10 times as many people as are reflected in official statistics, since the only people being tested are those symptomatic enough to seek medical care. That would put the actual number of infected at close to 700,000 people, which would easily be the highest in the world if it weren’t for the fact that this same claim could be made about any other country hit by the pandemic. Very few countries have been able to institute widespread testing and even in those countries the testing is usually targeted in some way. People who aren’t in the target population and don’t experience severe symptoms likely aren’t being tested. The reality, then, is that the actual infection rate likely outstrips the official figures everywhere, though perhaps not quite by a 10 to 1 margin.



2201 confirmed cases (+310), 46 reported fatalities (+12)

I have to acknowledge an error here. Foreign Exchanges has been operating on the basis that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s two reported negative COVID-19 tests were genuine. But in reality Bolsonaro hasn’t actually made the results of those tests public, he and his sons have just said he tested negative. And The Intercept Brazil’s Andrew Fishman highlighted on Twitter today, there’s a growing pile of anecdotal evidence to suggest they’re lying:

I’m not jumping to any conclusions. Maybe Bolsonaro really doesn’t have COVID-19. Maybe he has it but his manly immune system has fought it off. Maybe he’s a colony of COVID-19 microbes that somehow took human form and therefore he can’t be infected. Anything is possible.

Brazil’s COVID-19 outbreak is probably just on the cusp of getting really out of hand and Bolsonaro’s approval rating is tanking, so he’s flailing. He’s feuding with state governors and decrying the COVID-19 “hysteria” in a desperate attempt to get people back to work and get Brazil’s economy back on track. But on Tuesday the Brazilian president did clear up one issue by getting his sons to stop gratuitously insulting China on Tuesday in exchange for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s help combating the pandemic and a general agreement to improve trade relations between the two countries. It’s unlikely to amount to much, but it tamps down a foreign policy fire at a time when, as Vincent Bevins writes, Bolsonaro needs to focus his attention on destroying Brazil’s democratic institutions in order to preserve his presidency:

Bolsonarismo is an explicitly violent movement that holds democracy in contempt. It has made use of the niceties of representative government, but it also believes they can be discarded in service of the movement’s real goals: the affirmation of the traditional family, the maintenance of Brazil’s existing social order, and, most importantly, the eternal crusade to crush the left. Before an anti-corruption investigation destroyed the political establishment and allowed him to take center stage, the effective sum of Jair Bolsonaro’s political life, over twenty-seven years as a congressman from Rio, had been praise for the military dictatorship and support for the most violent police in the country.

Since his election, he has been a tireless culture warrior, attacking the press, or the opposition, or the system of checks and balances, in an endless stream of attention-grabbing provocations. But if you shut down your social media and walk the streets instead, it’s clear that Bolsonaro has not remade Brazil in his own image. In the final week of his campaign, he outlined what that would mean: the deletion of all traces of the left from the country. He could still try to accomplish this, and subjugate Brazil’s institutions in the process; or he could suffer the same fate as the last three presidents here—and face impeachment or prison.


54,141 confirmed cases (+8819), 750 reported fatalities (+168)

Finally, Kelsey Atherton looks back at the connections between war and disease and the similarities between what US sanctions are doing to places like Iran and North Korea, amid the pandemic, to a military siege:

Sieges, with defenders surrounded by hostile armed forces intending to wait them out, still happen in the modern world, much as they seem a fixture of a past era. These sieges, like those in antiquity, come with the diseases of deprivation, and the diseases that pass through populations thrown into violent conflict.

What is structurally different about sieges in modernity is that humans now have a scientific understanding of disease itself, and at least according to the conventions and treaties signed by nations, a humanitarian obligation to treat it. It was easy to see, in 2017 and 2018, an international condemnation of the siege tactics used by Bashar al Assad in Syria, tactics that brought deliberate suffering on civilian populations as a means of consolidating military rule.

It is somewhat harder, in the face of the international COVID-19 pandemic, to see where siege conditions are enforced to siege-like ends by means other than bullets and bombs.