LATIN AMERICA CONTINUES TO STRUGGLE IN FIGHT AGAINST COVID-19

According to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, the number of Covid-19 fatalities reported in Latin America has exceeded 250,000 as of 20 August. The region has now the highest total of confirmed Covid-19 infections, with Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, and Chile all ranking the world’s top 10 countries for the number of cases.

However, due to a lack of testing facilities and weak health systems, it is believed that the pandemic is far worse than the official statistics demonstrate, and while many countries that have curbed the virus now face the possibility of the so-called second wave, many Latin American nations are still tackling the first wave.

As reported by the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Covid-19 has spread to every country in the region, from Central to South America, with more than 5,4 million cases being recorded, turning it into the new epicentre of the outbreak. Brazil and Mexico have continued to enforce milder restriction measures than other Latin American countries, with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly downplaying the risk of the virus even after becoming infected with what he had previously acknowledged as  “little flu”, while Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been contemptuous regarding the usage of face masks when in fact the nation has recorded the third-highest number of coronavirus fatalities in the world.

In Chile, authorities have recently tightened lockdown rules following a rapid spike in the coronavirus cases in the country, whereas in Argentina the government have imposed only compulsory lockdowns. In Peru, with the third-highest death toll in Latin America, both cases and fatalities continue to rise albeit one of the first and strictest lockdowns in the region was put in place through the end of June. Ecuador, on the other hand, faced one of the earliest and worst outbreaks, and daily fatalities have now started to fall.

Uruguay, Paraguay and to a lesser extent Costa Rica, in turn, have performed comparatively well in containing the spread of the Covid-19 due in part to their low inhabitant densities, sparsely occupied border regions, and their distance from the main population centres. The major cities in these countries are also smaller than the large cities of Brazil and Argentina, for instance, and low-income areas, where the virus spreads easier and quicker, are less dense as well.

In addition to the health risks, the pandemic will also provoke a significant economic impact in the region, whose effects can already be perceived in many of its nations. The World Bank forecast that the Latin American and the Caribbean as a whole will experience a GDP contraction of 7.2 per cent in 2020. Before the pandemic in October 2019, the World Bank had expected a GDP growth of 1.8 per cent for the region this year.

Latin America has been slower in easing travel restrictions as the outbreak continues across many countries, however, some of them have officially started gradually reopening their borders for tourism. It is highly recommended to constantly check the entry requirements for each nation before planning your trip, whether on business or leisure.

NILE POLITICS: NAVIGATING TROUBLED WATERS

Representatives of Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt sat down on 3 August for the latest in diplomatic negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its potential effect on access to the Nile’s water.

Sudan and Egypt, the two downstream riparian states, have maintained that the construction of the dam will hamper downstream flows of the Nile’s water, a resource that both countries heavily rely on. Egypt has even maintained that its construction represents an existential threat to the country. Ethiopia on the other hand has argued the benefits of cheap electricity generated by the hydro-electric dam, which could prove valuable for the region as a whole. Nevertheless, the two downstream states are seeking, through the negotiations, a legally binding agreement that guarantees a certain volume of water flow across the dam. Furthermore, the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak has brought to light the importance of sustainable access to clean water, an issue that will be sure to feature during negotiations.

The Blue Nile dam has been a flash point between Egypt and Ethiopia since the project was made public in 2011. The dispute was however re-ignited in June, with Ethiopia’s decision to start filling the dam with seasonal rainwater, a move Egypt maintains is illegal without a legally binding agreement about how the process will be managed. The move to fill the dam has however gained support locally.

Thousands of Ethiopians took to the streets of Addis Ababa on 2 August to celebrate the dam’s construction progress and hashtags such as #ItsMyDam, #EthiopiaNileRights, and #GERD have been since trended on Twitter. The dam has become a symbol of national pride in Ethiopia and with Egypt’s longstanding claim to the Nile’s waters, the dispute could result in a regional standoff for hegemony. A concerted effort by both countries to rebuild and maintain their standings in the region, could subsequently open the door to a rise of nationalism, a move which can complicate democratic transitions underway in both countries.

Despite its regional specificity, the Nile dispute has raised alarms around the world. Earlier mediation efforts were conducted by the United States and both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have played an increasingly leading role in the Horn of Africa. The African Union has since taken reign over mediation efforts between the parties, but the involvement of further external powers cannot be ruled out in the near future.

Negotiations were set to take place over a one-week period, but the parties have since extended talks. While these negotiations may result in an agreement that ensures future cooperation, a failure to come to a consensus could instead lead to further protests, diplomatic rows, and even targeted attacks on the GERD itself. While such a drastic escalation seems unlikely, the threat itself could jeopardise current and future negotiations, prolonging an almost ten-year-old dispute. Despite this, tensions over water sources have generally resulted in cooperation rather than conflict, which could bode well for a region that has other more pressing issues to contend with.

LEBANON ON EDGE FOLLOWING BEIRUT EXPLOSION

Besieged by chronic economic woes as well as constant protests, Lebanon had already gotten off on a rocky start for 2020.

The outbreak of Covid-19 several months later also made the situation worse and on 4 August, things literally came to a blow when a fire-triggered explosion ripped through the port of Beirut, killing hundreds of people and levelled large parts of “Paris of the East”. A tragedy by all means, the explosion also further fueled anger among the Lebanese public who blamed the ruling elites for years of corruption and negligence. The Lebanese people were right in saying so as initial investigations revealed that the explosion was caused by the improper storage of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that were left at the port since September 2013.

Although the government resigned few days later, it did little to cool down the public anger as many people took to the streets of the capital and other cities to demand for the removal of the ruling elite including the president. Prior to the explosion, the government has already been criticized for its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak amidst an economic crisis that has been caused by the heavy reliance of debt to fund the national budget. Tired with what the country is going through, it is clear that the people of Lebanon are in unison that sweeping reforms are urgently required to prevent the country from plunging into a “failed state”. Such changes however are not easy to come by as Lebanon has always been characterized by a complicated political structure with many competing groups such as the Sunni-backed Hariri family, the Maronite Christians as well as Hezbollah, among others.

It is unlikely that the protests will go anytime soon but the destruction of the port also presented an immediate challenge for the country that imports almost 80 percent of its food supplies. With the port of Beirut almost crippled in the explosion, most of the traffic would need to be diverted to Tripoli, the country’s second-largest port but the limited capacity means that the food security outlook will become grimmer in the months ahead. The World Food Programme (WFP) has already announced plans to scale up its assistance though more will be required to help the country cope with the unprecedented crisis.

As Beirut continues to pick up the pieces from the devastating blast, many have also begun to look to the international community for help. The French President Emmanuel Macron who was among the first world leaders to visit Beirut following the explosion had promised aid and a virtual summit later also managed to rake in US$298 million from various governments. The United States and Iran have also offered to do the same while China has floated the idea of helping to rebuild the port of Beirut. While the Lebanese people greeted such pledges with relief, they are also mindful that the aid should not fall into the hands of the government i.e. the ruling elites who have failed them on many occasions

Militants on offensive in northern Mozambique

The security situation in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province has deteriorated significantly in the last few weeks. In mid-August jihadist militants belonging to the Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamaa group seized control of a strategic port in the town Mocimboa de Praia. The militant group has carried out attacks regularly in the northern region during the last two years. However, local reports indicate that the assault on the port in Mocimboa de Praia involved a higher number of militant units and a significantly higher level of coordination and sophistication compared to their previous operations. Mozambique’s military forces are currently consolidating forces in the region in what seems like preparations for a counter-offensive. The country’s military forces are marred by inadequacies regarding training and equipment and if the militants decide to dig in and defend the area any counteroperation is likely to be drawn out and take a heavy toll.

Wildfires in Brazilian Amazon on the rise

2020 has devolved into one of the most destructive years for the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, where deforestation has hit its highest level in a decade. Most blazes in the region are set by land grabbers and farmers as means to clear the land to convert the rainforest to pasture and croplands, and according to an analysis of satellite data by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), over 95% of the Brazilian blazes are illegal, violating the country’s 120-day fire ban implemented by President Jair Bolsonaro on 15 July. As reported by Greenpeace, there is an increase by 81% in federal reserves compared with the same period last year, and the most heavily impacted areas are the Jamanxim and Altamira National Forests in Pará state. Experts warn that this year’s dry season, which has just started, could see even more fires through September.

Cross-border attacks underscore persisting tension in the Gaza Strip

During the month of August, several incendiary balloons were launched from the edge of the Gaza Strip towards bordering areas with Israel. The attacks caused fires in agricultural land in southern Israel, and in response, multiple airstrikes were launched by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) towards alleged Hamas positions in Gaza. Additionally, fishing off the coast was prohibited, and fuel supplies limited, causing major power outages and aggravating economic conditions in the Strip. Regional countries such as Egypt and Qatar tried to mediate in the conflict to prevent additional escalation using different approaches, such as providing economic aid to Palestinians in Gaza. The new political landscape in the region after the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates could lead to a stabilization in conflict areas. However, it could also give ground to opposing groups to denounce the pact and pursue violent actions. While both sides eventually reached a truce on 31 August, it remains unclear if it will hold as similar arrangements previously had also collapsed in a matter of weeks or months.

Southeast Asia braces for annual haze season

September marks the beginning of the annual haze season in parts of Southeast Asia due to the burning of forests to clear lands by farmers particularly in Indonesia. Typically, the worst of the haze season will take place around mid-September during which hazardous smog from Indonesia will be carried to neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei as well as southern Thailand due to the southwest monsoon season. Transport disruptions particularly to flights should be anticipated during this period. School closures are also possible while those with medical conditions should reduce outdoor activities if travelling in the region.

SEPTEMBER TIMELINE

What to look out for this month: