In Other News: Russian Protests, Covid-19 Impacts on Mexico & More – January 29, 2021

January 29, 2021

Tens of thousands of Russians (possibly as many as 100,000) took to the streets last weekend in cities across the country to protest the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny upon his return from Germany, where he was treated and convalesced after being poisoned by Russian state security services in August. More than 3,700 protestors were arrested, and video and photographic evidence of violent clashes and police beatings have been widely shared over the internet. Later in the week, authorities arrested Navalny’s brother and another close ally and a Russian court struck down an appeal of Navalny’s arrest. More demonstrations are planned for this coming weekend. Navalny claims that his arrest was politically motivated (a claim many consider credible). He rose to international prominence via a series of videos detailing corruption allegations against high-ranking Russian officials, including one that was put online the day after his return to Russia that purports to be footage of a $1 billion+ mansion/compound belonging to President Putin. Navalny’s poisoning and arrest – and what they imply about corruption and political repression in Russia – are not the only cause for discontent. Also at issue is the Russian economy. The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting impact on oil demand and prices has contributed to high unemployment and a sharp devaluation of the ruble, along with declining living standards and rising inflation. Despite the hardships facing Russians and their show of dissatisfaction with the government, we do not consider Putin or his allies in the Kremlin to be in political jeopardy. However, these protests, which follow a similarly surprising show of anti-Kremlin force as the October 2020 protests in Russia’s far east, suggest that the anger under the surface may be more powerful than is currently visible, and may also be growing. This is a situation that merits careful monitoring, both by the Kremlin and by those looking for signs of impending change in Russia.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday but continues to carry out his duties as president. López Obrador is isolated at the National Palace and experiencing only mild symptoms, according to Interior Minister Olga Sánchez, who said that he would return to his daily press conferences as soon as doctors give him clearance. López Obrador is 67 years old and considered high-risk, having had a heart attack in 2013, yet he has displayed a lax attitude toward the coronavirus for months. Mexico has recorded approximately 1,750,000 cases and 150,000 deaths from the coronavirus, and López Obrador has received much criticism for his handling of the crisis. In contrast to many other large economies, Mexico has not provided fiscal stimulus to combat the negative economic impacts of the pandemic. Even Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who also got Covid and whose handling of the pandemic has been criticized, spent the equivalent of 12% of its GDP to provide assistance to its population. Mexico has dedicated a scant 0.7% of its GDP to address the crisis, and its economy in 2020 shrank by 8.5%, its biggest annual contraction since the Great Depression. Even though Q4 saw some recovery, economists are now concerned that surges in the virus – particularly in and around Mexico City, which is experiencing new restrictions to slow the spread – could halt growth in Q1 2021.

A documentary detailing the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China is expected to paint a damning picture of alleged attempts to suppress information about the outbreak and will almost certainly elicit a fierce backlash from Beijing. Reports suggest that the film, set for release by HBO later this year, persuasively contradicts the narrative that China’s handling of the virus was a success. China has long resisted a thorough accounting of where the virus originated and how it spread, leaving an information vacuum that gave rise to numerous theories (including some of the tin foil hat variety). While Beijing’s goal may have been to downplay any responsibility for a pandemic that has killed more than 2 million worldwide, its secrecy fueled speculation that there was something incriminating to hide. Adding to that speculation are recordings of WHO officials from early on in the pandemic, leaked to reporters, complaining of a lack of transparency on China’s part. China has made a priority of casting its role in containing and battling the virus in a positive light. The country was quick to offer international assistance (with mixed success – several countries reported that Chinese-made Covid tests were faulty) and is suspected of attempting to steal vaccine research in an effort to take the lead in developing an effective shot. Beijing even released its own government-made film last week, “Heroic hymn of the people,” to disseminate its narrative about how events unfolded. A WHO team deployed to Wuhan to for a long-delayed investigation of the pandemic’s origins was released from quarantine yesterday and is set to begin field work today. Their methods and results will be under intense scrutiny, and their findings will be critical to identifying potential sources of future pandemics and developing plans for containing the damage. Any effort on Beijing’s part to obstruct research or prevent full findings from being made public will only strengthen suspicions about China’s role in unleashing the worst pandemic in a century and undermine its attempts to cast itself as the hero.