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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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Diplomacy

Soft Power Dynamics in Middle Eastern Conflict

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The Middle East is synonymous with eternal conflict as being at the cross-point between Africa, Europe, and Asia.

The paper intends to understand how the power could be derived from the cultural roots in a world filled with pre-existing biases based on religious values, nationality, and interpretation of history.

Palestine receives strong international support through social media by sharing its pain and grievances increasing its soft power that hampers Israel’s international relations. A new question emerges can the soft power paradigm be used to resolve the problem?  

The roots of the Middle Eastern problem are driven by historical-religious literature which shows the Middle East to be the historic homeland of Jews and they wanted to get back to their original homeland due to two-millennium long suppression that finally ended up as the holocaust.

Israel continues to emphasize and promote stories related to Second World War which help them gain the legitimacy to exist as a state. It is also remarked that the holocaust may have been a decisive condition for the creation of a Jewish state but this action would have occurred sooner or later.

One of the biggest strengths for Israel and its legitimacy comes from the Biblical literature which has some historical stories in it and mentions Israel and Judah in the Middle East providing American Christian Support which seems to be dropping as a result Israel needs to work on its soft power.

A similar strength can be found in Quran for Israeli as Surah Al-Ma’idah in Chapter 5 verse 12 states about the Children of Israel and verse 21 explains that they are “destined to enter and not to turn back else they will become the loser.” These verses motivate Israeli for their cause which raises an interesting phenomenon that some pro-Israeli media would use Quranic verses to gain legitimacy.

History needs to be studied to understand how and where the differences between Jews and Muslims started. Originally there was a peaceful relation between Jews and Muslims but Jews refuse to acknowledge Muhammad a non-Jew as one of the prophets of God which caused the relationship between Jews and Muslims to deplete.

Finally, Banu Qurayza a Jewish community allied with Qurashites against Prophet Muhammad that caused Medina to suffer a war-built hatred towards Judaism.

However, even after looking at the differences Muslims, Christians, and Jews are Abrahamic religions maintaining their base Judaic-monotheistic tradition as both Roman Catholics and Arab previously had polytheistic culture and Israel has indirectly benefitted from this historical fact.

Israel could benefit from various religions by showing show respect to the leaders of Abrahamic religions and even maintain an apologetic attitude on behalf of some of the members of the Jewish community which may have conducted villainous actions as per some stories based on other religious doctrines.

The tower of one’s ego can prohibit supporting the national interest which could only be achieved by becoming softer to gain soft power.

It is argued that the ancient Philistine is related to present-day Palestine. Palestine as a result gets associated with David and Goliath or Samson’s struggle with Philistine. However, the term Palestine is more complicated which had developed in the period.

There are also claims that the Syria Palaestina was constructed as a punishment for Bar Kochba Revolt in 135CE while the name Palaestina given to the region seems to be older than Bar Kochba Revolt and even older than the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

The image of the Israel and Palestine conflict is connected towards mythical combat between David and Goliath. David was an inexperienced youth who later became king of Israel and defeated a giant from ancient Philistine called Goliath.

Some actors who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have also connected Palestine with David who was weak at the beginning of the story while they perceive Israel as an unjust giant and the toughest fighter in the region.

The Middle Eastern conflict goes beyond religion and history as it has multiple dimensions due to multiple crimes against humanity causing people to be refugees that inflict social, political, and economic damages.

A medium to obtain soft power is by resolving the humanitarian crisis and Israel being perceived as a perpetrator tampered with its national image.

Israel as an economically advanced country with large spending power can establish economic institutions to raise funds in providing education, training, and employment to victims of that conflict regardless of their religion, ethnicity, gender, or political views who have been scattered around the world which would help Israel gain legitimacy.

The economic recovery of the war victims can minimize some damage enforced upon the national image but there is a strong opinion that the Palestinian community lacks legal rights as being in Israeli jurisdiction. So, political rights might have to be secured to the Palestinians while they have to live in Israel for Israel to create a positive national image.  

The Israeli government also create an option for the Palestinian community to have the right to return, granting them protection in Knesset (Israeli Parliament), while promoting Arab Israeli politicians, and can even reflect how they have shaped the Israeli government in the international arena to build Israel’s soft power.

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is the social affairs which are closely tied to the soft power paradigm.

There is a clear fear that the Jews are eclipsing the social identity of the Palestinian people but in reality, they are closely linked as Arabic language and Hebrew are Semitic languages, their scripts have common Aramaic ancestry, and Halaal and Kosher dietary cultures are also similar.

There should be an effort to study the similarities to build unity and to study unique qualities as to appreciate one another’s differences. Israel could also create Cultural Relations Centers around the world that promote both Jewish and Palestinian language, culture, and cuisine to create respect and solidarity. 

There can also be the production of television programs, movies, digital applications which could allow people to understand the Middle Eastern community.

Tel Aviv is the center for the development of many technological advancements and carries great potential to build creative applications and visual storytelling that could help spread awareness about the Middle East.

On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority could request the Israeli government to provide scholarships in various Israeli Universities which could enhance their credential for making effort to create a peaceful world as well as proposing exchange programs by inviting Israeli students to visit regular Palestinian colleges and working spaces decreasing bitterness.

The Palestinian Authority could also pursue Israeli investment in core-Palestinian settlements that could create employment as well as mutual dependence allowing Palestine to grow with a greater bargaining power while maintaining a symbiotic relationship.

Culture, history, and institutions can be combined to create harmony. A key aspect to gain soft power and legitimacy is by becoming softer by showing respect to the opponents while appreciating and accepting others’ viewpoints.

Therefore, the study of religion, history has to be conducted from a neutral perspective that can be trusted by all international actors and could serve as a uniting factor while maintaining an apologetic attitude towards historic mistakes. There needs to be an effort to provide economic and political compensation for the victims which have caused notoriety in the international arena and finally the culture of the two competing communities needs to be celebrated through cultural institutions to build trust and harmony.

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Diplomacy

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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Diplomacy

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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