World roundup: April 24-25 2021
Stories from India, Albania, Peru, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 23, 1817: Under their leader Miloš Obrenović, a group of Serbian rebels in the village of Takovo declare independence from the Ottoman Empire, setting off the Second Serbian Uprising. After a conflict that lasted until late July 1817, the rebels were able to win de facto independence from the Ottomans, who recognized their autonomous state as the “Principality of Serbia.” The Serbians finally gained full independence at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.
April 23, 1985: In what’s considered one of the most catastrophically bad business decisions of all time, the Coca-Cola Company introduces a new formula for its flagship beverage. Although the new formula had outperformed the old one in taste tests, the move was so overwhelmingly unpopular that the company revived the old formula a mere three months later, first as “Coca-Cola Classic” and later, after it had phased out the new formula, as just “Coca-Cola” again. The switch seemed so baffling that it spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories, ranging from a ploy to boost sales to a way to disguise changes in the original formula (a switch from sugar to high fructose corn syrup and/or the removal of its remaining coca components).
April 24, 1915: Ottoman authorities arrest a group of around 250 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul in what has come to be known as “Red Sunday.” They were eventually forcibly deported to other parts of the empire and most were ultimately killed. The incident is considered a kind of “decapitation strike” against the empire’s Armenian community and is regarded as the first major event of the Armenian Genocide. April 24 is commemorated as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day within Armenia and by Armenians in the diaspora.
April 25, 775: The Battle of Bagrevand
April 25, 1846: A small detachment of US soldiers is resoundingly defeated by a much larger Mexican contingent in what became known as the Thornton Affair, after the US commander Captain Seth Thornton. This was the first military engagement of the Mexican-American War, which ended in February 1848 with Mexico’s surrender, including its recognition of the US annexation of Texas and the cession of the territory that includes the modern states of California, Nevada, and Utah as well as parts of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
April 25, 1898: The US Congress declares war on Spain retroactive to the imposition of a US naval blockade on Cuba on April 21. This marks the start of the Spanish-American War, which ended in August with Spain’s surrender and the cession of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico to the US along with a renunciation of Spain’s claim on Cuba.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for April 25:
147,780,731 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+727,349 since yesterday)
3,122,428 reported fatalities (+9924 since yesterday)
For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here
6137 confirmed coronavirus cases (+32)
1187 reported fatalities (+12)
The Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen once again pushed dueling drone stories on Sunday. The Houthis are claiming that they successfully carried out a strike on Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid air base, near the city of Khamis Mushait. The coalition, on the other hand, says it shot down a Houthi drone and has said nothing about a successful strike. As usual there’s no independent indication either way.
More heavy fighting west of Maʾrib city has left some 65 people dead in two days, according to AFP citing “government sources.” Of those, 26 have been pro-government combatants and the rest rebels, most of whom have likely been killed in airstrikes. Despite the death toll, the rebels are reportedly advancing closer to the city after a heavy influx of reinforcements.
4,629,969 confirmed cases (+38,553)
38,358 reported fatalities (+347)
As expected, Joe Biden took the occasion of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on Saturday to offer the first formal US recognition of that particular atrocity. There’s no practical ramification of the recognition itself unless Biden intends to blacklist Enver Pasha or something, so for purposes of this newsletter the big thing to watch is what kind of impact it has on the already dismal state of the US-Turkish relationship.
So far, it hasn’t had much of one. The Turks summoned the US ambassador in Ankara to complain but they haven’t recalled their ambassador from Washington and have only offered some vaguely menacing comments about possible future retaliation. But if they’re not retaliating now I think the chances of any serious response later are pretty slim. The fact is that while Turkey still talks a fairly big game when it comes to this issue, its actions rarely match its rhetoric. In 2016, when the German government recognized the genocide, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Berlin and…that was pretty much it. In this case it hasn’t even gone that far.
1,031,322 confirmed cases (+6034)
15,257 reported fatalities (+40)
The Turkish military apparently launched a new offensive against Kurdistan Workers’ Party fighters in northern Iraq on Friday. It’s continued its activities through the weekend, conducting airstrikes against PKK positions in Dohuk province on Sunday while also dropping special forces into Dohuk’s Metina region. There’s been no word as to casualties as yet, nor is there any indication how long the Turks intend this latest operation to last.
Elsewhere, Iraqi security forces reportedly killed one anti-government protester and injured at least ten others in Baghdad on Saturday. Protests are starting to pick up again in several Iraqi cities over blackouts, which tend to increase in frequency this time of year as temperatures rise and the demand for air conditioning overwhelms the country’s decrepit power grid. Four people, two civilians and two police officers, were killed on Friday in two incidents—one bombing and one shooting—in Diyala province. Both of those attacks have been attributed to the Islamic State.
838,024 confirmed cases (+50) in Israel, 290,972 confirmed cases (+713) in Palestine
6352 reported fatalities (+2) in Israel, 3167 reported fatalities (+16) in Palestine
Tensions between Israeli police and Palestinians in Jerusalem may have been the trigger for a major exchange of fire between Hamas and the Israeli military over the weekend. More than 36 rockets were fired out of Gaza on Saturday, a number that suggests Hamas was directly involved as opposed to one of the enclave’s smaller militant groups. The Israelis responded with strikes against targets identified as military-related in Gaza. There’s no word on any casualties in the exchange, but at least six people were wounded overnight in clashes near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. Israeli police reportedly ended their ban on gatherings there earlier in the evening, so perhaps that will ease tensions on that front. As for Gaza, four more rockets were fired out of the enclave late Saturday (possibly by one or more of those militant groups) but did not draw an Israeli response, suggesting an attempt to calm the situation down.
A somewhat mysterious explosion heard in central Israel on Tuesday, whose cause was murky enough that Iranian media began suggesting it was the result of some retaliatory Iranian military operation, has turned out to have been the result of an Israeli rocket test. The Israeli military is working on a new generation of air defense missiles, so the timing makes sense in that regard.
2,396,204 confirmed cases (+19,165)
69,574 reported fatalities (+454)
An Iranian oil tanker in the eastern Mediterranean suffered an apparent drone or missile attack on Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in which at least three people were killed. There’s no indication as to responsibility but the Israeli military would presumably be the leading suspect. Iran and Israel have been engaged in a series tit-for-tat attacks (um, allegedly) on each other’s commercial vessels of late but the fact that there’s a body count associated with this attack makes it an escalation, whether the Israelis intended it that way or not.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers have reportedly killed three unspecified “militants” after a confrontation in Sistan and Baluchistan province near the Iran-Afghanistan border. Details are sparse but there are a number of predominantly Baluch militant groups that operate in that region and that do clash with the IRGC from time to time.
Newly leaked excerpts from an interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is making some political waves inside Iran. On the recording, which Zarif evidently made last year as part of an official record keeping process, he’s heard criticizing former Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani for trying to dominate Iranian foreign policy and suggesting that Soleimani colluded with the Russian government in an attempt to wreck negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. Iranian officials have confirmed the authenticity of the recording but are insisting that the excerpts have been taken out of context. The provenance of the leak is unknown and there have been suggestions it may have come courtesy of the Saudis in an attempt to discredit Zarif. On the other hand there have also been suggestions that Zarif himself, or someone close to him, leaked these excerpts in an attempt to exonerate him for Iranian foreign policy failures of the past several years.
213,288 confirmed cases (+410)
4018 reported fatalities (+17)
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan tendered his resignation on Sunday, but he’s not leaving office as the folks who have been protesting against him for the past several months might hope. Pashinyan’s resignation is necessary to trigger a snap parliamentary election, which he announced last month and which is now scheduled for June 20. He’ll remain in place in a caretaker capacity through the election, and if polling is accurate he stands a good chance of being reelected despite those aforementioned protesters.
59,021 confirmed cases (+174)
2592 reported fatalities (+10)
There have been multiple attacks targeting Afghan civilians since Friday that have left at least 26 people dead. No fewer than three of those attacks—one late Friday and the other two on Saturday—took place in Kabul, killing six people. A roadside bombing in Kandahar province on Friday killed four people and a similar incident in Ghazni province killed another four. On Sunday, separate attacks in Kandahar and Logar provinces killed a total of 12 Afghan police officers. The Sunday attacks both appear to be the work of the Taliban, as does the Friday incident in Kandahar. It’s possible that one or more of the other attacks was carried out by IS or another group, but in general it would appear that the Taliban is stepping up its activity either in anticipation of the US withdrawal or in anger over Joe Biden’s decision to stretch that withdrawal out through September.
Speaking of which, General Austin Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told journalists on Sunday that the withdrawal has begun. US and other NATO forces in Afghanistan will leave by September 11, turning their facilities over to Afghan military control as they depart. What is somewhat less clear is what will happen to the thousands of private military contractors currently in Afghanistan. It’s expected that most of them will leave as well though the US government seems intent on using some PMC forces to continue supporting the Afghan military post-withdrawal. The Pentagon also seems to anticipate using the “counter-terrorism” forces it’s hoping to base in a neighboring Central Asian country (identity to be determined) to support the Afghan military as well. So we’re really not withdrawing after all, it would seem, just relocating. But at least Biden will get to pretend that he ended the war.
17,306,300 confirmed cases (+354,531)
195,116 reported fatalities (+2806)
India continues to be battered by a COVID outbreak that is likely worse than even the terrible story the official statistics are telling:
For the fourth straight day, India on Sunday set a global daily record of new coronavirus infections, spurred by an insidious new variant that emerged here. The surge has undermined the government’s premature claims of victory over the pandemic.
The 349,691 confirmed infections over the past day brought India’s total to more than 16.9 million cases, behind only the United States. The Health Ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing India’s fatalities to 192,311.
Experts say this toll could be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included, and many COVID-19 deaths are being attributed to underlying conditions.
The unfolding crisis is most visceral in India’s overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums, and in heartbreaking images of gasping patients dying on their way to hospitals due to lack of oxygen.
Burial grounds in the capital New Delhi are running out of space. Bright, glowing funeral pyres light up the night sky in other badly hit cities.
India’s critical spike in cases, exacerbated by shortages of vaccines and basic medical supplies like oxygen, seems finally to have prompted some desperately needed help. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union all promised over the weekend to provide emergency medical assistance to India. None, as far as I can tell, has offered to dip into their obscenely overstuffed hoards of vaccine supplies to distribute some portion of their excess stockpiles to New Delhi, even though in some cases—the tens of millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccines that US health officials still haven’t approved for use, for example—those supplies will probably reach their expiration dates while sitting in storage, completely wasted.
It’s hard to comprehend what’s happening here. But between an unwillingness to risk drug company profits by relaxing intellectual property rights around the vaccines and an unwillingness to give up even vaccine supplies that they cannot or at least probably will not use, the United States and Europe are displaying a stunning level of inhumanity even by their standards. The Indian government, meanwhile, has to reckon with its own miscalculations and how they’ve helped put the country into such a desperate situation.
142,712 confirmed cases (+8)
3206 reported fatalities (+0)
Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states did hold their emergency summit on the situation in Myanmar over the weekend, and it would appear they’ve decided it’s not so bad after all. Welcoming Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to the group, ASEAN leaders say they presented him with two demands: an end to the violence that’s seen security forces kill over 700 protesters since February’s coup, and a release of political prisoners. However, their formal post-summit statement said nothing about the prisoners. Min Aung Hlaing apparently did promise to put an end to the violence. But since from his perspective it’s the opponents of his junta who are causing that violence, he may have some ideas about exactly how to “put an end” to it that wouldn’t necessarily occur to you or me. Apart from that, the apparent total lack of pressure on the junta to restore civilian governance has understandably generated a fair bit of criticism toward ASEAN.
13,627 confirmed cases (+67)
467 reported fatalities (+5)
A rocket attack on a United Nations peacekeeping base in Mali’s Kidal region on Sunday left at least three peacekeepers “gravely wounded,” according to the UN. As far as I can tell there’s no indication who was responsible. Mali is home to active al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates.
164,719 confirmed cases (+35)
2062 reported fatalities (+1)
Islamic State West Africa Province fighters overran a village in northeastern Nigeria’s Yobe state on Friday evening, killing at least 11 people. The ISWAP attackers were still occupying the village as of Saturday, and I do not know if they’ve left yet. Meanwhile, in southeastern Nigeria’s Imo state, unknown attackers assaulted the state governor’s mansion on Saturday, killing three police officers. The attackers threw Molotov cocktails at the building, presumably attempting to set fire to it. Biafran separatists are probably responsible but as far as I know there’s been no claim as yet.
4770 confirmed cases (+18)
169 reported fatalities (+0)
Chad’s new military government rebuffed an overture from the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) group on Sunday. After FACT leaders announced that they were open to a ceasefire and negotiations on a political way forward after the death of President Idriss Déby last week, Chadian officials said they had no interest in negotiations and it would appear they’re planning to continue their military campaign against FACT fighters who have been advancing on N’Djamena for a couple of weeks now. They even asked the Nigerien government for help tracking down FACT leader Mahamat Mahadi Ali, who may have crossed the border into Niger earlier this month.
252,279 confirmed cases (+1324)
3551 reported fatalities (+20)
According to Reuters, citing Ethiopian ombudsman Endale Haile, fighting between the Amhara and Oromo communities in Ethiopia’s Amhara region may have killed more than 200 people in April (so far). Previous estimates had the April death toll at around 50. Fighting between the two groups, which has frequently involved Amhara regional security forces, left more than 300 people dead in March.
13,670 confirmed cases (+211)
698 reported fatalities (+9)
There were reports of gunfire exchanged in Mogadishu on Sunday between supporters of Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who is still claiming to be Somali president, and supporters of his political opponents, who insist his term ended earlier this year. Reporting suggests there are active duty Somali soldiers on both sides of this confrontation, raising fears of a potential civil war. Casualty figures are not available but it’s clear that there were casualties, as Homeland Security Minister Hassan Hundubey Jimale offered “condolences” for them in remarks about the violence. The situation at this point is unclear but forces involved in the outburst have now seemingly taken positions around the city and could resume their clashes.
352,950 confirmed cases (+1276)
2493 reported fatalities (+10)
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is planning to change the presidential succession process so that if a president were to die in office, authority would pass to the country’s national security council. Just coincidentally, it so happens that Lukashenko’s eldest son, Viktor, has a seat on that council, so this looks a bit like an attempt to arrange a hereditary line of succession without necessarily doing so in a formal way that might raise public ire. Legally speaking authority is supposed to pass to the prime minister if a Belarusian president dies in office. Under this new system the PM would still formally take over, but all real power would reside in the council.
130,537 confirmed cases (+128)
2378 reported fatalities (+6)
It’s too early to draw any conclusions, but exit polling shows Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party of Albania narrowly leading Sunday’s parliamentary election. One exit poll gives the Socialists 46.9 percent of the vote, compared with the Democratic Party’s 43.5 percent, while another has the two parties at 44-42. This election has been heated, with one person having been killed in an outburst of pre-election violence on Wednesday. On Saturday, Albanian President Ilir Meta accused US ambassador Yuri Kim of aiding Rama’s campaign. Yep, working to elect socialists around the world, that’s definitely something the United States government does all the time. Suffice to say I don’t think Meta has much evidence to back up his claim.
1,619,383 confirmed cases (+1302)
28,962 reported fatalities (+23)
A new European Union audit has put Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš back in the hot seat over possible corruption. The report finds that Babiš, the billionaire owner of a large business empire, violated EU conflict of interest rules when his government steered EU subsidies toward that empire, the Agrofert group. There doesn’t appear to be any insinuation that Babiš necessarily directed those subsidies in order to pilfer the subsidies, just that he hasn’t done enough to divest himself of his Agrofert ownership. Since entering politics Babiš has employed the “blind trust” dodge to insist that while he still technically owns his businesses he’s insulated from their operations.
3,298,201 confirmed cases (+12,014)
82,237 reported fatalities (+43)
New polling for the German outlet Bild am Sonntag has Germany’s Green Party edging ahead of the conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance in voting preference for this September’s parliamentary election, 28 percent to 27 percent. That’s a six point gain for the Green Party and marks its best ever performance in the Bild am Sonntag survey. The Union, on the other hand, was down two points, as was the third place Social Democratic Party, which has dropped to 13 percent support.
14,340,787 confirmed cases (+32,572)
390,925 reported fatalities (+1316)
A mere day after pledging to put Brazil on course to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, Jair Bolsonaro cut the country’s 2021 environmental budget by 24 percent. Well, at least he gave it a good faith effort. Also on Friday, Bolsonaro—who recently swapped out his top military personnel for people who are presumably more loyal to him personally—made some comments in a TV interview about putting the Brazilian military “into the streets” for reasons he kept just vague enough to be worrisome. I’m sure it’s fine and he’s totally not planning a self-coup in the event he were to lose next year’s presidential election or anything.
1,761,575 confirmed cases (+7425)
59,724 reported fatalities (+284)
New polling from the Peruvian Studies Institute gives socialist candidate Pedro Castillo 41.5 percent support heading into June’s runoff, compared with only 21.5 percent supporting his far-right opponent, Keiko Fujimori. That’s the biggest gap yet seen in head-to-head polling, and while it indicates a large number of undecided voters it’s not clear that there are enough of those to give Fujimori the win even if they all broke for her, which is unlikely. Over a fifth of voters say they intend to vote for neither candidate.
191,518 confirmed cases (+995)
2047 reported fatalities (+19)
The Venezuelan government has reached an agreement with the UN World Food Program to provide school lunches to some 1.5 million students. That’s the second deal that Nicolás Maduro, who notoriously resists international humanitarian aid, has struck with an international humanitarian aid organization this month, after another deal with the World Health Organization’s COVAX program to provide COVID vaccine supplies to Venezuela.
32,824,389 confirmed cases (+34,736)
586,152 reported fatalities (+273)
Finally, reiterating a point we covered above, the Washington Post reports on the growing outrage that COVID vaccine inequality is generating around the world:
A long-simmering debate over the glaring gap in vaccine access — largely between rich and poor countries, but among some developed nations, too — is now boiling over, with global figures and national leaders decrying the vaccine plenty in a few nations and the relative drought almost everywhere else.
African nations such as Namibia and Kenya are denouncing a “vaccine apartheid,” while others are calling for policy changes in Washington and a broader rethink of the intellectual property and trademark laws that govern vaccine manufacturing in global pandemics.
“It’s outrageous ethically, morally, scientifically,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization, on global vaccine inequities.
“We have all the kindling to start fires everywhere,” she said in an interview. “We’re sitting on a powder keg.”
It is happening at a demarcation point in the pandemic. In some countries with high vaccination rates — including the United States, Britain and Israel — coronavirus numbers are decreasing or plateauing. But globally, the number of new cases per week has nearly doubled since February, according to the WHO, particularly as some nations in the developing world witness their highest infection rates yet.
When he was a candidate for president, Joe Biden made a point of declaring that he would restore US global leadership. Leaving aside deeper questions as to whether that’s desirable, there is absolutely nothing the United States could do that would improve its global image and influence more than overseeing as equitable a distribution of COVID vaccines as possible. Yet when presented with this opportunity not only to fulfill his campaign rhetoric but to do the right thing to boot, Biden has chosen to do nothing. After railing against Donald Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, Biden is now embracing some of its worst aspects with respect to the most critical international issue he currently faces. And people are dying as a result.