- The Washington Post reports that Belarussian saboteurs played a key role in stalling Russia’s advance into Ukraine in late February, targeting signal controls to paralyze supply train movements (although it’s hard to tell how much of the logistical mess was due to Russian bungling vs. sabotage). The head of Ukraine’s railways praised the saboteurs as “brave and honest people who have helped us.”
- Meanwhile in Ukraine, Russia resumed its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, striking at least five rail stations in the west of the country.
- There were also reports of explosions at a security building in Moldova’s pro-Russian separatist region of Transnistria. Moldovan authorities urged calm and are treating it as an isolated incident rather than the start of a Russian invasion.
- The UK Defense Secretary estimated that 15,000 Russian troops have died in Ukraine in the past nine weeks. That’s as many as died in the nine-year Soviet War in Afghanistan.
- Following his visit to Kyiv, SecDef Austin laid out a new policy goal with respect to Russia: instead of merely helping Ukraine repel its invaders, “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
- Sanctions are a key part of the U.S. toolkit to weaken Russia, but they won’t have much bite unless the EU stops buying Russian oil and gas—and EU plans to embargo Russian oil and gas seem to have faltered because of disagreements within the bloc. The EU will debate the issue again at its next summit in late May.
- Back in Russia, Pres. Putin bragged about an FSB operation that successfully foiled a neo-Nazi plot to kill a famous Russian TV anchor, blaming the West for instigating the would-be assassination. The FSB released photos from the alleged raid that got a few laughs: among the items pictured—which the FSB said it confiscated from the plotters—were three copies of “The Sims” video game, which some think the lackey who helped stage the photo confused for the “SIM cards” he was supposed to include.
- Iran’s Revolutionary Guards seized a “foreign” ship and its eight crew members in Bushehr for allegedly smuggling 200,000 liters of fuel. Officials didn’t identify the flag of the ship or the nationalities of its crew, but there’s a good chance the cargo was going to a neighboring Gulf country where fuel is more expensive.
- Hundreds of Arab Janjaweed fighters swept through a village in western Darfur on Sunday, burning homes and killing at least 150 people. It was the worst ethnic violence in Darfur in years, but local reports suggest the Sudanese military and Rapid Support Forces stood idly by.
- Libya’s Oil Minister says the Sharara and El Feel oilfields will reopen and return to full production within days once tribal leaders reach a “final agreement” to end the protests that shut down production. That said, the National Oil Corporation—which tends to be slightly less political than the Ministry—hasn’t mentioned a restart yet.
- Guyana sold the first of its share of offshore crude production—a cargo of around a million barrels—to Exxon for about $106 million, which the government plans to use to build infrastructure.
- Beijing reported a spike in COVID cases over the weekend, raising fears the capital city could face a prolonged lockdown like Shanghai’s contentious closure.
- The Economist printed a good article last week on lockdown fatigue in China—see below.
- ECOWAS gave both Guinea and Burkina Faso until yesterday to share credible plans for a transition back to democracy, but both juntas failed to deliver. They now face new sanctions.
- Niger and Burkina Faso announced that their militaries had killed “about 100 terrorists” during a joint operation spanning from April 2 to 25. These Sahelian counterterrorism operations are often very heavy handed, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there are reports of civilian casualties amidst the targets.
- Islamist militants from JNIM claimed to have captured Russian mercenaries in the mountains of Mali. There are around 1,000 Russians fighting with Mali’s army, but this is the first time extremists have boasted about capturing some of them.
- French president Emmanuel Macron defeated his far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen, by a wide margin in the second-round runoff on Sunday, as investors and analysts had expected.
Locked down, fed up: The way Chinese think about covid-19 is changing (Economist)
But the government shows little sign of changing its zero-covid policy
Reading the news backwards has long been a useful skill in China, where officials often obfuscate. Recently it has seemed like a matter of survival for some. Take the residents of Beijing, the capital, who are girding themselves for a covid-19 lockdown and all the hardship that might entail. When the city’s officials announced on April 11th that there was more than enough food for everyone, people assumed the opposite. “Understood, hurry and go shopping now,” a cynic wrote online.
Beijing has fewer than 100 cases of the virus. There are no clear indications of a growing outbreak or of an impending lockdown. But residents recall the experience of Shanghai, where local officials insisted there would not be a citywide lockdown right up to the moment they imposed one. First they tried to lock down half of the city at a time. Then they closed the whole place. Residents who had trusted the authorities quickly ran out of food. Now people in other Chinese cities are stockpiling supplies, determined not to make the same mistake.
China shows no signs of loosening its zero-covid approach, which uses mass testing and strict lockdowns to crush outbreaks. If anything, the government is tightening its controls. A report by Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm, found that all but 13 of China’s top 100 cities (by gdp) were implementing covid restrictions (see chart). Ten cities are in “severe lockdown”, meaning more than half of residents are confined to their homes. Changchun, Xuzhou and Shanghai were recently in full lockdown. Shanghai has announced that areas with no cases for two weeks will see restrictions lifted.
For much of the pandemic the Chinese public has joined officials in hailing the zero-covid strategy as a success. Over the past two years China has had a lower mortality rate from the virus and stronger economic growth than any other big country. During a recent speech celebrating China’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in February, President Xi Jinping claimed that some foreign athletes said China deserved “a gold medal for responding to the pandemic”. Earlier Mr Xi said the country’s anti-covid efforts “demonstrate the advantages” of the Communist Party’s leadership.
But the current wave is changing the way people think about the virus—and about the government’s strategy. No one wants mainland China to end up like Hong Kong, which was overwhelmed by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, leading to a spike in deaths among unvaccinated old people. The mainland’s elderly population is similarly vulnerable, so a complete lifting of controls is out of the question. At the moment, though, anecdotal evidence suggests that more people are dying because of the Chinese government’s restrictions than from the virus. The state needs to adapt, say critics.
The 98-year-old mother of Lang Xianping is one such victim. In a post on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Mr Lang wrote that she died of kidney failure after waiting for hours at the entrance of an emergency room, unable to enter without a negative covid test. Mr Lang, meanwhile, argued with local officials until they let him out of his sealed compound. When he was finally released, there were no cars on the street to take him to the hospital. “I did not get to see my mother one last time,” he wrote. “This tragedy could have been avoided.”
These types of stories—tragic, troubling and widely shared—are growing more common. And they are causing some people to fear covid restrictions as much as they do the virus. As provincial governments roll out pre-emptive measures to combat covid, citizens are sharing guides on how to freeze vegetables, as well as old film clips in which party officials are criticised for caring more about political correctness than starving commoners.
People are frustrated with the government’s failure to adjust its covid policy by, for example, letting patients with mild symptoms quarantine at home, instead of at isolation centres where they use scarce resources. Experts believe covid rules are causing avoidable deaths. They point to a study published last year by a team affiliated with China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. It found that during an early lockdown in the city of Wuhan, deaths from chronic illnesses exceeded expected rates by 21%. Deaths from diabetes exceeded expected rates by 85% and suicides by 66%. Two years later, some ask, has the government learned anything?
Other countries that have moved away from strict covid policies now allow people with infections to self-isolate. That requires governments to trust that people will act responsibly. But the Chinese government, obsessed with control, does not. Instead, it tells citizens to trust the party. A recent editorial in the People’s Daily, an official newspaper, called for Shanghai’s residents to “grit their teeth” and hold tight to the party’s leadership. “In fighting the pandemic, trust is more important than gold,” it said. Residents of Shanghai are unmoved. “All the policies this month have been incomprehensible,” says one. “They say one thing but implement another. We don’t trust these policies any more.”
Instead the people of Shanghai are relying on each other. They use the term zijiu (self-salvation), as they fill the gaps left by an overwhelmed party apparatus. Kelly Wang, a volunteer in the district of Xuhui, describes how younger residents care for their elderly neighbours and organise bulk orders of food. The state, meanwhile, has censored the hashtag “buying groceries in Shanghai” on Weibo. “We know that we can’t count on the government any more,” says Ms Wang. But, she adds, “The people here are capable and brilliant.”
Shanghai, home to the rich and powerful, gets a lot of attention. But other parts of China, such as Yunnan and Xinjiang, have gone through longer, more restrictive lockdowns. The city of Jilin has been closed for over a month. Residents there have shared videos of police publicly shaming residents for criticising covid restrictions in a private online chat group. In Shenzhen a shop owner filmed state-media reporters who refused to interview him because he complained about not receiving lockdown subsidies. “We’re only here to report on the people being helped,” says one reporter. But as China’s strict covid controls ensnare more people, it is becoming harder to convince them that all is well.