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COVID-19 pandemic: Politicking and denial of world leaders

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Countries across the globe are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a struggle for all the countries so far. Not a single  country has been safe from it. United Nations has labelled this pandemic the “most challenging crisis” after World War II. Within three months of outbreak, 180 countries have been affected, more than one million people have been affected and around 50,000 lives lost worldwide.

Highlighting the risk this poses to peace and stability in the world, the United Nations’ Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, issued an urgent appeal for action, calling on politicians to “forget political games” and come together for a “strong and effective response”.

“The world is facing an unprecedented test. And this is the moment of truth,” he said.

Lockdowns were brought in as a strategy to contain its spread, but it has brought its own set of hardships. Countries with the dwindling economies have been forced into a standstill. The worst-hit regions are suffering the most, hospitals are overflowing with sick patients, medical supplies are dwindling and the strength to uphold the patient pool has become a challenge of its own. In addition to those who are suffering, shortage of food and money has become an overwhelming issue for the governments. Lack of awareness coupled with a lack of resources, has been a major source of contention in developing nations.

“It’s been disappointing in many countries – too many,” said John M Barry, a historian who studied the Spanish flu pandemic that killed as many as 100 million people in 1918. “In some countries, it’s been outright reprehensible – some leaders’ actions will unnecessarily kill many of their citizens.”

It looks as if history is repeating itself, the decision about millions of lives is in the hands of a small group of world leaders. A decision that they will have to take in the coming days or weeks. Some countries are in denial as their leaders be little the chaos we can face. Their reasons vary widely, so does their interests. It ranges from distrust in science or worse, preference of economic reasons over health.

Denial tactics have been commonly put forth. In China, Xi Jinping shared virus effects were first observed in late December,but his team were more focused on covering up the threat by punishing the doctors who sounded suspicious or alarmed at the early outbreak of the illness. This paved way for the virus to spread in every nook and corner of Wuhan and then globally.

Across the Atlantic, in United States, President Donald Trump initially trivialized the severity of the virus threat, thinking it would just disappear over a while like a miracle. And then he dismissed the growing clinical emergency that would go on to halt the world economics, contemplating whether the disease was a “hoax” by his political rivals. He had to remodel his tactics after it was estimated that 200,000 people could die in the US if proper and substantial containment efforts are not put in place.

On a contrasting note, Indonesian Prime Minister, Joko Widodo, admitted he withheld the information of the outbreak, to prevent panic among the population. He took the advise of his ministers, who claimed that they could pray this disease away. Moreover, he was reassured that Indonesia’s warmer climate would slow the virus spread.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the illness as a “fantasy” and a “little flu”. Just last week, he defied the advice of his health officials on avoiding social contact by touring the streets of the capital, Brasilia, in a campaign to get his countrymen back to work.

The callus approach by world leaders extends to Mexico, where President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, held political rallies late into March. He was pictured kissing his supporters and urging Mexicans to “live life as normal”. Remarkably, these turn of events took place when his health minister called on citizens to stay home to contain the virus.

Such behaviors from world leaders have been criticized across the globe. As Charles Call wrote in his blog post that this crisis will pose a “test for populism” in countries. He said at Washington DC-based Brookings Institute that this conduct should be marked as “an aversion to scientific inquiry and state institution”.

So instead of denying it would have been wise to tell the truth and face the situation in full swing. It is a repeat of the last huge pandemic, where similar tactics were employed. It did not end well in 1918 and it is not turning out pleasantly now. The masses should be informed about the severity of the situation, but the truth has been trivalized so far.

From March11, the situation spiked in Italy, as the region had the most population of elderly, low immunity population. Concerned, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was alarmed at the fact that approximately 70 percent of her country’s population could contract the virus. “The situation is serious; take it seriously,” she said. In a democracy, such curbs “should not be enacted lightly – and only ever temporarily. But at the moment they are essential to save lives.”

Praising Merkel, Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe said the chancellor’s approach “points the way forward to the unified, decisive response that is necessary and how democracies can best deliver it”. Like Germany, Singapore similarly went for aggressive testing and tracing campaigns which in return kept the number of the infections low in the country. Around 1000 cases since the beginning of the outbreak. In an interview to CNN, he said,

“We are transparent – if there is bad news, we tell you. If there are things which need to be done, we also tell you,” he said. “If people do not trust you, even if you have the right measures, it is going to be very hard to get them implemented.”

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, despite limited resources, dived in bravely with the population to keep the number of viruses affected to be under the bay. Progressive standards were made available and were followed to protect the citizens.

UN acknowledged the disadvantaged democracy’s work and appreciated their efforts to do so.South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele are also receiving praise for enacting similar decisive and transparent actions. 

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, used the fistful right to amend in to law that imposes jail terms of five years on those who spread “false information” to prevent spreading of rumors about the pandemic and saving the population from panic. Similar steps were taken by Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, as he can secure any emergency power to crack down on false claims about the pandemic.`

And during these testing times, some leaders have used their political power to over embezzle their authority over their population. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, used state emergency and closedown country’s courts ahead of his trials on corruption charges. The pandemic was used as an excuse.

“We recognize that this pandemic is posing an unprecedented test for world leaders,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Our problem is that some leaders have adopted authoritarian approaches. This is not the time for politics… any emergency powers must be proportionate, and states must always protect people’s rights.”

With a handful of the pandemic crisis over the globe, the verbal war between US-China is another cause of concern. As to fight this crisis the world needs to be united under the strong umbrella of key countries.

“There isn’t a global response. And it’s a huge problem in the sense that this a crisis that is much better handled if key countries came together,” said Charles Kupchan of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.

We need to think of the masses without proper or developing health care system. In these critical times, we can get to the finishing line only by working together. The wholehearted help of countries with advanced and proper healthcare systems need to stand up and share their experiences. Stability is not far away but a lot of work will have to be done before it could be realized.

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Biden-Putting meeting: Live from Geneva

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19:00 The places of the flags on the Mont Blanc bridge on which President Biden and President Putin will pass to reach the meeting venue on Wednesday usually hold the flags of the different Swiss cantons. Not today. The American and Russian flags have been placed to welcome the two leaders. 

18:00 A day before the Geneva summit: Hotel Intercontinental where the American delegation and probably President Biden himself is staying, how the city looks like a day before the meeting, what are the security measures like, why isn’t the UN involved and are the usual protests expected?

Iveta Cherneva with live video political commentary from Geneva one day ahead of the Biden-Putin Summit

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Will the promotion of cricket in GCC add to its Soft Power?

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In recent years, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, have been trying to bolster their ‘Soft Power’ in a number of ways; by promoting tourism, tweaking their immigration policies to attract more professionals and foreign students and focusing on promoting art and culture. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken the lead in this direction (in May 2017, UAE government set up a UAE Soft Power Council which came up with a comprehensive strategy for the promotion of the country’s Soft Power). Under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia has also been seeking to change its international image, and it’s Vision 2030 seeks to look beyond focusing on economic growth. In the Global Soft Power Index 2021, Saudi Arabia was ranked at number 24 and number 2 in the Gulf region after the UAE (the country which in the past had a reputation for being socially conservative, has hosted women’s sports events and also hosted the G20 virtually last year)

Will the promotion of cricket in GCC add to its Soft Power?

   One other important step in the direction of promoting Soft Power in the GCC, is the attempt to popularize cricket in the Gulf. While the Sharjah cricket ground (UAE)  hosted many ODI (One Day International )tournaments, and was witness to a number of thrillers between India and Pakistan, match fixing allegations led to a ban on India playing cricket at non-regular venues for a duration of 3 years (for a period of 7 years from 2003, Sharjah did not get to host any ODI). The Pakistan cricket team has been playing its international home series at Sharjah, Abu Dhabu and Dubai for over a decade (since 2009) and the sixth season of the Pakistan Super League is also being played in UAE. Sharjah has also hosted 9 test matches (the first of which was played in 2002).

 Sharjah hosted part of the Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament in 2014, and last year too the tournament was shifted to UAE due to covid19 (apart from Sharjah, matches were played at Dubai and Abu Dhabi). This year again, the UAE and possibly Oman are likely to host the remaining matches of the IPL which had to be cancelled due to the second wave of Covid19. The ICC Men’s T20 World Cup to be held later this year (October-November 2021), which was actually to be hosted by India,  could also be hosted not just in the UAE, but Oman as well (there are two grounds, one of them has floodlights). International Cricket Council (ICC) is looking for an additional venue to UAE, because a lot of cricket is being played there, and this may impact the pitches. The ICC while commenting on the possibility of the T20 World cup being hosted in the Middle East said:

, “The ICC Board has requested management [to] focus its planning efforts for the ICC Men’s  T20 World Cup 2021 on the event being staged in the UAE with the possibility of including another venue in the Middle East’

GCC countries are keen not just to host cricketing tournaments, but also to increase interest in the game. While Oman has a team managed by an Indian businessman, Saudi Arabia has set up the SACF (Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation) in 2020 and it has started the National Cricket Championship which will have more than 7,000 players and 36 teams at the school level. Peshawar Zalmi, a Pakistani franchise T20 cricket team, representing the city of Peshawar the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which plays in the Pakistan’s domestic T20 cricket league – the Peshawar cricket league —  extended an invitation to the SACF, to play a friendly match against it. It’s owner Javed Afridi had extended the invitation to the Saudi Arabian team in April 2021.  Only recently, Chairman of SACF Prince Saud bin Mishal  met with India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dr Ausaf Saeed, to discuss ways for promoting the game in Saudi Arabia. He also visited the ICC headquarters at Dubai and apart from meeting officials of ICC also took a tour of Sharjah cricket ground.

GCC countries have a number of advantages over other potential neutral venues. First, the required infrastructure is already in place in some countries, and there is no paucity of financial resources which is very important. Second, there is a growing interest in the game in the region, and one of the important factors for this is the sizeable South Asian expat population. Third, a number of former cricketers from South Asia are not only coaching cricket teams, but also being roped in to create more enthusiasm with regard to the game. Fourth, UAE along with other GCC countries, could also emerge as an important venue for the resumption of India-Pakistan cricketing ties.

Conclusion

In conclusion, if GCC countries other than UAE — like Saudi Arabia and Oman  — can emerge as important cricketing venues, their ‘Soft Power’ appeal is likely to further get strengthened especially vis-à-vis South Asia. South Asian expats, who have contributed immensely to the economic growth of the region, and former South Asian cricketers will have an important role to play in popularizing the game in the Gulf. Cricket which is already an important component of the GCC — South Asia relationship, could help in further strengthening people to people linkages.

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Analyzing the role of OIC

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oic

Composed of fifty-seven countries and spread over four continents, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) is the second-largest intergovernmental body following the United Nations (UN). And it is no secret that the council was established in the wake of an attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Safeguarding and defending the national sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of its member states is the significant provision of the OIC’s charter. OIC charter also undertakes to strengthen the bond of unity and solidarity among member states. Uplifting Islamic values, practicing cooperation in every sphere among its members, contributing to international peace, protecting the Islamic sites, and assisting suppressed Muslim community are other significant features of its charter. 

Recently, the world witnessed the 11-days long conflict between Hamas and Israel. In a recent episode of the clash between two parties, Israel carried out airstrikes on Gaza, claiming many innocent Palestinian lives. The overall death toll in the territory rose to 200, including 59 children and 35 women, with 1305 injured, says Hamas-run health ministry. This event was met with resentment from people across the world, and they condemned Israeli violence. After 11 days of violence, the Israeli government and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. The event of Israeli violence on Palestinians has called the role of OIC into question. The council, formed in the aftermath of the onslaught on Al-Aqsa mosque, seemed to adopt a lip service approach to the conflict. However, the call for stringent measures against Israeli aggression by the bloc was not part of its action. 

Likewise, the Kashmir issue, which has witnessed atrocities of Indians on innocent Kashmiris, looks up to the OIC for its resolution. Last year, during the 47th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) in Niamey, Niger, the CFM reaffirmed its strong support for the Kashmir cause. The OIC categorically rejected illegal and unilateral actions taken by India on August 5 to change the internationally recognized disputed status of the Indian Illegally Occupied Jam­mu and Kashmir and demanded India rescind its illegal steps. However, the global community seems to pay deaf ears to the OIC’s resolution. The Kashmir issue and the Palestine issue are the core issues of the world that are witnessing the worst humanitarian crisis. And the charter of the bloc that aims to guard the Muslim ummah’s interest rings hollow. About a year ago, the event that made rounds on electronic and social media was the occurring of the KL summit, which reflected another inaction of the OIC. The move of influential Muslim countries (Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia), to sail on the idea to establish another forum to counter the OIC, manifested the rift in the bloc.  

Many OIC countries are underdeveloped and poorly governed and are home to instability, violence, and terrorism. The consequences of the violence and terrorism in the OIC countries have been devastating. According to Forbes, 7 out of 10 countries, which suffer most from terrorism are OIC members. The Syrian conflict is another matter of concern in the Mideast, looking up to OIC for a way out. An immense number of people have lost their lives in the Civil war in Syria.

Several factors contribute to the inefficiency of the bloc. The first and foremost reason is the Saudi-Iran stalemate. Influential regional powers (Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) in the Mideast share strained links following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Both sides dissent each other on many fronts. Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran of interfering in its internal affairs, using terrorism as a tool to intimidate neighbors, fuelling sectarianism, and equipping proxies to de-stabilize and overthrow the legitimate government. Locked in a proxy war in the Mideast, the KSA and Iran vie for regional dominance. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear program is met with strong resentment in the KSA since it shifts the Balance of Power towards Iran. Such developments play a vibrant role in their stalemate, and the bloc’s effectiveness is hostage to the Saudi-Iran standoff.

Political and social exclusion in many OIC states is the norm of the day, contributing to upheaval and conflict. In OIC countries, the level of political participation and political and social integration is weak. This fact has rendered OIC countries vulnerable to unrest. Arab Spring in 2011 stands as the best example. Furthermore, conflicts, since the mid-1990s, have occurred in weak states that have encountered unrest frequently. 

Saudi Arabia has tightened its grip on the OIC. The reason being, the OIC secretariat and its subsidiary bodies are in the KSA. More importantly, the KSA’s prolific funding to the bloc enhances its influence on the bloc. One example includes, in the past, the KSA barred an Iranian delegation from the OIC meeting in Jeddah. Saudi authorities have not issued visas for the Iranian participants, ministry spokesman, says Abbas Mousavi. “The government of Saudi Arabia has prevented the participation of the Iranian delegation in the meeting to examine the deal of the century plan at the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation,” Mousavi said, the Fars news agency reported. Given the Iranian growing influence and its access to nuclear capabilities, the KSA resorted to using financial leverage to reap support from Arab countries against Iran. For instance, in past, Somalia and several other Arab states such as Sudan and Bahrain received a commitment of financial aid from Saudi Arabia on the same day they cut ties with Iran. Furthermore, the summits of OIC, GCC, and Arab League are perceived as an effort by Saudi Arabia to amass support against Tehran. 

Division in the Muslim world and their clash of interests is yet another rationale behind its inefficacy. These days, many Muslim countries are bent on pursuing their interests rather than paying commitment to their principles, that is, working collectively for the upkeep of the Muslim community. Last year, the governments of Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that they had agreed to the full normalization of relations. Following this, the Kingdom of Bahrain became another Muslim country to normalize its links with Israel. Such moves by the Islamic countries weaken the OIC agenda against Israel. 

OIC’s efficacy would be a distant dream unless the Saudi-Iran deadlock finds its way. For this purpose, Pakistan can play a vital role in mediating between these two powers. Pakistan has always been an active player in the OIC and played its role in raising its voice against Islamophobia, Palestine Issue, and the Kashmir issue. Shunning their interests and finding the common goals of the Muslim ummah, should be the utmost priority for the members of the bloc. Every OIC member ought to play its part in the upkeep of the bloc. Furthermore, a split in the bloc should come to an end since it leads to the polarization of member states towards regional powers. Many OIC countries are rich in hydrocarbons (a priceless wealth, which is the driver for the growth of a country); if all OIC members join hands and enhance their partnership in this sphere they can fight against energy security. And OIC is the crux for magnifying cooperation among its member states to meet their energy needs.

In this era of globalization, multilateralism plays a pivotal part. No one can deny the significance of intergovernmental organizations since they serve countries in numerous ways. In the same vein, OIC can serve Muslim ummah in multiple ways; if it follows a course of adequate functioning.

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