In Other News: China’s Lack of Transparency, Brazil’s Bolsonaro & More – April 2, 2021

April 2, 2021

China’s refusal to provide earlier, more transparent access to data to World Health Organization investigators appears to be strengthening suspicions that Covid-19 was the result of a leak from a Chinese lab, rather than transmission from animal to human in a market, as both China and the WHO have asserted. The Director of the World Health Organization, General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, along with more than a dozen governments (including the US), have taken Beijing to task for its failure to provide greater access to information surrounding the origins of a pandemic that has now infected more than 127 million worldwide and killed more than 2 million. A new WHO report released on Tuesday concluded that the market’s role in the initial jump from animal to human is not clear and was not conclusively found to be the source of the virus, even if it was the site of one of its earliest outbreaks. The report found no link between the earliest reported case, on December 8, and the market, and Tedros stated publicly this week that the investigation did not adequately assess the potential role of a laboratory incident as the pandemic’s origin. The US has criticized the Chinese government for denying investigators access to data and issued a joint statement with more than a dozen other countries – including Canada, the UK, South Korea, and Japan – voicing concern over the lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese. The WHO’s investigation team found it highly unlikely that Covid-19 was released accidentally from a lab. However, China’s lack of transparency in handling the issue, and what is commonly understood to be a lack of transparency by the Chinese government generally, has undermined any confidence the international community might have otherwise had in the findings. Paradoxically, it is this feature of Beijing’s methods that may be a contributing obstacle to its efforts to establish itself as a global leader in pandemic response, including vaccine diplomacy.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is facing increased criticism for his handling of the pandemic from the public and Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – who now seems likely to run against Bolsonaro in 2022. Bolsonaro has responded to the growing outcry over the pandemic with a cabinet shakeup this week, announcing the departure of six cabinet-level officials on Monday. The move came a week after Bolsonaro appointed his fourth health minister since the start of the pandemic. Following the announcement, the commanders of the armed forces resigned in protest on Tuesday, deepening the crisis currently engulfing the president. With Covid-19 deaths close to 4,000 a day and hospitals across Brazil running out of beds and oxygen, Bolsonaro’s popularity has fallen and his political adversaries are seeing an opportunity. Da Silva, the 75-year old leftist from the Workers Party popularly known as “Lula,” has urged Brazilians to get vaccinated and not listen to Bolsonaro’s “foolishness” anymore. Lula has said Brazil is experiencing “genocide” due to Bolsonaro’s lack of leadership during the crisis and called on the United States to convene the G20 to address global vaccine equity. Until last week, Lula had been fighting corruption charges, but on March 23, he finally won vindication when Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that former judge Sergio Moro was biased in his oversight of Lula’s trial and that his conviction should be overturned. The ruling has tarnished Moro’s record as an anti-corruption crusader, but more significantly, it has paved the way for Lula to run for president against Bolsonaro next year. Polling data out of Brazil suggests Lula defeating Bolsonaro in a presidential contest.

Italy has expelled two Russian diplomats over espionage charges, alleging that they paid an Italian defense official, Walter Biot, ~$5,800 for classified documents. Police separately recovered NATO documents that they believe Biot gave them on a previous occasion. This news comes just days after a series of headlines regarding a Russian spy ring that was broken up in Bulgaria. Six Bulgarians were arrested on suspicion of supplying Russia with Bulgarian state secrets, as well as information on NATO and the EU. Russia has grown increasingly alienated from the West following its invasion of Ukraine, the poisoning and arrest of Kremlin political opponent Alexey Navalny, and attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK among other countries. Though its military might is severely diminished from the Soviet era and its finances are suffering from low oil prices and international sanctions, Russia’s intelligence capabilities have remained robust and well-funded, and these incidents, while unsurprising, should serve as reminders that Russia’s intelligence apparatus is a persistent threat that should not be underestimated.

For more on Russia, listen to TAG President Jack Devine’s March 29 interview on Bloomberg Radio hosted by Paul Sweeney and Matt Miller. Jack Devine, former chief of CIA’s worldwide operations, talks about Russia as the number one threat to U.S. security and democracy and his new book, Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression.