Monitor Daily Podcast

April 09, 2020
Loading the player...


Italy’s ‘solidarity baskets’ and other tales of coronavirus compassion

As stay-at-home orders swept the globe last month, residents swarmed grocery stores only to find empty shelves. For many, this was their first direct encounter with food insecurity. But for 2 billion people around the world, that uncertainty is a constant.

As residents have settled into the rhythms of homebound life, that uncertainty has largely fallen away for many, as farmers, grocers, and distributors have soldiered on to make sure food is available.

Still, the shuttering of nonessential businesses has created a tide of newly unemployed, nearly 17 million and counting in the United States. Even during times of plenty, 46 million Americans depend on food banks. Today those same food banks are straining to meet the sudden upsurge in need.

But another tide is rising, a tide of generosity. 

All around the globe, individuals and corporations are stepping up to help each other. Movie mogul Tyler Perry surprised seniors shopping at 44 Krogers across Atlanta on Wednesday by picking up all of their tabs. In Tyler, Texas, Brookshire’s Grocery is donating $1 million to food banks across three states. And throughout suburban America, neighbors are stocking little free libraries with pantry staples. 

But perhaps the most charming example of such generosity comes from one of the nations hit hardest by this crisis: Italy. In Naples, residents are lowering “solidarity baskets” filled with pasta, canned tuna, and other groceries for homeless people. Tucked into each basket is a handwritten invitation: “Those who can, put something in, those who can’t, help yourself.”

COVID models vary widely. What that means for leaders under pressure.

Determining a rational course of action can be challenging when fear abounds. Understanding the underlying assumptions that have led to dramatically different projections of COVID-19 infection and fatality rates can help.


Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Where can public officials turn for trusted advice on COVID-19 when models of the pandemic’s arc have offered such divergent projections of death rates and hospital shortages?

Ideally, scientific advisers can help officials understand the underlying assumptions that modelers have used to piece together fragmentary data. But often those assumptions get lost in the fray, creating an aura of certainty – and dread – when projections are splashed across the news with grave images.

“I think we could be doing a lot of harm,” says John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist and statistician at Stanford University, who adds that that stress affects susceptibility to viral and respiratory infections. Others defend sobering models as essential to helping leaders and health care systems brace for a surge in demand and saving lives.

So far, there isn’t enough data to provide definitive transmission or fatality rates. Wide-ranging variations in the adoption of and adherence to social distancing further complicate the picture.

There is another variable that may well tip in our favor, says Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, a professor of public management at Harvard Kennedy School. That’s America’s ability to innovate its way through crisis. “We are just beginning to do our best thinking,” he says.


1. COVID models vary widely. What that means for leaders under pressure.

As mayors, governors, and presidents weigh how best to guide their communities through the coronavirus crisis, they must navigate dramatically divergent models of the arc of the pandemic.

In the United States alone, leaders have already made decisions that have disrupted millions of citizens’ lives and cost trillions of dollars, with a disproportionate economic impact on low-wage earners and their families. As citizens across the country wonder whether they and their loved ones will be safe, how they’ll pay their bills, and when they'll be able to return to work, some are pressing their leaders to take stricter measures while others are questioning the models that prompted such unprecedented steps.

The modeling debate within the scientific community is due in part to uncertainty around key questions, including transmission and fatality rates. And the challenge is further complicated by wide-ranging variations in adoption of and adherence to preventative measures like social distancing and voluntary home quarantine.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“I think we should use all data to inform our views, but we shouldn’t be overconfident in the results from any one data set or even any combination of data sets,” says Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I think we’re still at the stage of, ‘Here are the caveats.’”

But the caveats and underlying assumptions are sometimes lost in the fray. For average citizens, the charts depicting expected spikes in fatality rates or hospital shortages can take on an aura of certainty – and dread.

“No matter what the numbers are, if they are accompanied by pictures of people dying and of graves and trucks carrying the dead ... [people] read the numbers through these narratives, through these stories,” says John Ioannidis, a professor of epidemiology at Stanford University. Such packaging in the media compounds an already stressful environment, he adds, noting that stress affects susceptibility to viral and respiratory infections. “In such a situation, with panic and horror being disseminated, I think we could be doing a lot of harm.”

Why the models diverge so widely

Two of the most prominent COVID-19 models are from Imperial College London and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Washington state.

Imperial’s Neil Ferguson and his colleagues garnered headlines with their projection that if nothing were done, COVID-19 deaths in the United Kingdom and U.S. over two years would total 510,000 and 2.2 million, respectively, and demand for critical care beds would peak at 30 times actual capacity.

Their March 16 report, which advocated social distancing, is widely credited with prompting Britain and many U.S. states to close schools, churches, and nonessential services. The Trump administration issued guidance the same day recommending that employees work at home and gatherings be limited to 10 or fewer people.

Dr. Ferguson, who is one of the most highly respected figures in his field, came under fire for allegedly reversing course nine days later when he told British Parliament that due to the U.K.’s lockdown and social distancing policies, he estimated the death toll at 20,000 and possibly substantially less.

The 20,000 estimate was in fact included in the original report – but as one of 46 different projected death tolls ranging from 5,600 to 120,000 depending on the rate of transmission and the scope of societal restrictions. (See page 13 in this PDF.)

It’s unclear how effective such restrictions are. A survey of 14 studies on quarantine in past disease outbreaks, for example, found that rates of adherence varied from 0% to 92%.

“I think we need to be very careful with narratives that say ... ‘Only 20,000 died because we did the right thing,’” says Dr. Ioannidis, who has made a career out of finding holes in medical research and cautions against a “bandwagon” effect among researchers.

Last month he published a provocative article in STAT warning of a once-in-a-century “evidence fiasco” around COVID-19, asking how policymakers could be sure they weren’t doing more harm than good by implementing draconian countermeasures based on patchy data. Dr. Lipsitch wrote a rebuttal piece arguing that despite the lack of data, inaction was not an option given the exponential nature of infection.

One of the key unknowns is the infection fatality rate. Under ideal circumstances, fatality rates are a matter of simple arithmetic – divide the number of deaths by the number of infections. But without widespread testing of the general population, it’s difficult to produce a reliable denominator. What’s more, the number of fatalities isn’t entirely certain, either. In Italy, for instance, there have been indications that deaths may have been either overstated or understated, casting doubt on totals elsewhere as well.

The World Health Organization initially estimated the fatality rate for global cases at 3.4%. But more recent estimates have come in lower. A March 13 article in the journal Science, for example, concluded that China’s fatality rate was closer to 0.5%. Imperial’s study put the U.K. rate at 0.9%.

The other model garnering a lot of attention, from IHME at the University of Washington, didn’t attempt to calculate fatality rates. It focused on projecting total deaths and the strain on health care systems, initially using data from Wuhan, China, and then other locations as more data became available.

IHME’s March 25 forecast projected lower death tolls than numerous other models – in part because it assumed that within one week, all U.S. states would have adopted four social distancing measures that China implemented. But two weeks later, 41 states have implemented two or fewer. Nevertheless, IMHE has since reduced its projections to 60,415 U.S. deaths by August, and lowered its estimate of total hospital beds needed at peak demand by nearly half.

John Locher/AP
Medical students Claire Chen (center left) and Miranda Stiewig (center right) take people's temperatures to screen for possible coronavirus cases at a makeshift camp for homeless people on March 28, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Making assumptions clear

So how are public officials supposed to make sense of the debate within the scientific community – and fast?

Ideally, their scientific advisers can help sort through the relevant studies or models, including the fine print, says John Holdren, former White House scientific adviser under President Barack Obama.

“It’s the responsibility of the modelers [individuals and their agencies] to make the assumptions and associated uncertainties clear when they describe their results, and the responsibility of science advisors to policy makers to try to make sure these points are understood,” says Dr. Holdren in an emailed comment.

The Trump administration showed IMHE’s model at a March 31 press conference when it unveiled its own estimate of 100,000 to 240,000 fatalities, also citing studies from Imperial College, Harvard, and others. But the White House gave little visibility into how it arrived at those numbers.

“I’m not quite clear – and I’m a pretty experienced pandemic watcher – about the process of deliberation,” says Howard Markel, a physician and professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan who has studied pandemics from the Black Death to the 1918 Spanish flu and was part of a group of experts tapped to evaluate the Obama administration’s H1N1 influenza policies on a daily basis from 2009 to 2011.

Key in crisis: Scientists and politicians working together

One of the critical performance factors in handling a crisis is how successfully the scientific community and political actors interface with each other, says Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, a professor of public management at Harvard Kennedy School who is working with mayors from around the world through the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

Politicians are sometimes skeptical of scientists’ projections, he says, while scientists can underestimate the political difficulty of enforcing something like social distancing.

“The scientists often act as if the mayor has a wand and can order the public to stay home, but she’s using up really scarce political capital,” which could undermine her ability to act as the pandemic worsens, says Professor Leonard.

But Dr. Markel says that a public health official changing strategy as new data comes in is analogous to a physician who adjusts his treatment of a patient as symptoms change, and that should be communicated to the public. “It’s the patient-doctor relationship writ large because you’re taking care of a community,” he says.

As leaders strive to give an unvarnished view of the facts without creating undue fear, Professor Leonard says one variable may be higher than people realize: America’s ability to innovate its way through crisis.

“We consistently underpredict the resilience in our political and economic system because we can’t ourselves figure out what the answer is,” he says, even as an automotive factory is figuring out how to produce masks, for example. “We are just beginning to do our best thinking.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Navigating uncertainty

The search for global bearings

Democracy around the world is down but not out. Test case: Brazil.

Our next story touches on another global uncertainty. Why is democracy’s star dimming so much around the globe? We look to Brazil as a key test case in part 5 of our series “Navigating Uncertainty.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People participate in a noon service at an evangelical church in the Centro Historico, Feb. 3, 2020, in Cuiabá, Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro draws much of his support from Evangelicals who like his social values.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 10 Min. )

Amid the coronavirus crisis, people around the world are leaning out of windows and porch doors, cheering and banging pots and pans to support medical workers. But many Brazilians are banging theirs for a different reason: to call for the resignation of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Mr. Bolsonaro, in office for just over a year, has been one of the highest-profile skeptics of painful lockdown measures. But for many critics, fears about his leadership, and the health of Brazil’s young democracy, predate this crisis. The right-wing president has voiced nostalgia for the former military dictatorship, filled his cabinet with military men, and attacked democratic institutions.

Brazil has veered away from democracy more quickly than almost any other country, says political scientist Staffan Lindberg. That’s accelerated what he calls the “third wave of autocratization” washing over the globe, from India and Turkey to the United States.

But it isn’t inevitable. Today’s era, Dr. Lindberg explains, may offer more opportunities to mobilize and shore up faltering democracies than the first two waves, in the 1930s and ’60s.

“The fact that it goes relatively slowly and that there’s still quite a strong international norm [for liberal democracy] provides a window of hope and opportunity,” he says.


2. Democracy around the world is down but not out. Test case: Brazil.

It’s a muggy Saturday night in February, and a man arrives outside a home in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in this Brazilian city at the center of South America. He takes out a black recorder from an instrument case and begins blowing the tune to “The Internationale,” the 19th-century left-wing anthem.

This is the owners’ cue to unlatch their gate. Each month the password changes, and visitors only receive the address after members scrutinize their social media to vet their political leanings.

Welcome to the Secret Bar, started late last year by a couple worried about Brazil’s increasingly authoritarian and illiberal turn under President Jair Bolsonaro. “The first rule is you can’t be fascist, misogynist, xenophobic, or share any of the intolerance of Bolsonaro,” says Cristiana Vasconcelos, one of the founders.

It’s a meeting of like minds, filled with former union leaders, writers, anarchists, teachers, and students who feel like a minority in this Bolsonaro stronghold. But the goals, on this pleasant, plant-filled patio decorated with paper lanterns and homemade art, aim higher than just a night out. This gathering is one of many efforts, small and large, aiming to organize resistance against the right-wing former army captain who is testing Brazil’s young democracy.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cristiana Vasconcelos, holding her baby, and her husband, Carlos Sanches (right), chat with friends during a gathering at their home Feb. 1, 2020, in Cuiabá. The couple started "Secret Bar" gatherings to try and push back against the Bolsonaro government's turn toward the right.

Bolsonaro critics’ more existential fears have been realized in his handling of the coronavirus. The president is one of the highest-profile skeptics of painful lockdown measures, prioritizing economic growth and dismissing COVID-19 as “a little cold.” During protests against Brazil’s other branches of government March 15, he shook supporters’ hands, against public health guidelines, and he has downplayed the importance of physical distancing measures enforced around the globe. The country now has some 16,000 cases, and more than 800 people have died.

Concern over Mr. Bolsonaro’s disdain for democratic norms, however, long predates the current crisis. In the past three years, Brazil has veered away from democracy more quickly than almost any other country in the world, says Staffan Lindberg, executive director of Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), which measures global democracy, at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. That paved the way for Mr. Bolsonaro’s rise and has accelerated what he calls the “third wave of autocratization” washing over more than a third of the global population, from India, Turkey, and the United States to many Eastern European countries.

Some countries on the list are still well in the democratic camp, including the U.S. Yet for the first time since 2001, autocracies rule a majority of the world – 54% of the global population – according to a report V-Dem released March 20.

The first wave arrived in the 1930s, as democracies broke down in the lead-up to World War II. The second hit in the 1960s and ’70s, when many recently decolonized democracies reversed to strongman rule. Whereas sudden military coups often ushered in the first two, this third wave has built more gradually, with a media outlet closed down here, a court intimidated there, making it hard to know when to react and how.

SOURCE: The Economist Intelligence Unit 2019 Democracy Index
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

But this era may offer more opportunities to mobilize to shore up faltering democracies. The V-Dem report shows that the share of countries with substantial pro-democracy protests, in which citizens took to the streets to demand clean elections or defend civil liberties and the rule of law, rose from 27% in 2009 to 44% in 2019, an all-time high. 

“The fact that it goes relatively slowly and that there’s still quite a strong international norm [for liberal democracy] provides a window of hope and opportunity,” Dr. Lindberg says. “It’s not inevitable that these processes we see happening now have to run their course into dictatorship.”

The Secret Bar is closed for now, because of the coronavirus, but its founders are finally seeing the protests they aimed to generate. As many people around the world lean out their windows, banging on pots and pans to cheer on medical workers, Brazilians in major cities are banging theirs to call for Mr. Bolsonaro’s resignation.

Bolsonaro’s three B’s

In much of Brazil, opposition has been quiet until now. In that silence, most see weariness from half a decade of political upheaval.

In 2014, when the Workers’ Party was in power, one of the most complex corruption scandals in South American history broke. Called “Car Wash,” for the site of the first investigation, it engulfed former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, and left political disillusionment in its wake.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Tall buildings dot the skyline of Cuiabá, which has a population of more than 600,000 people. Cuiabá is the capital of the central state of Mato Grosso.

Like U.S. President Donald Trump, with his call to “drain the swamp,” Mr. Bolsonaro promised in his 2018 campaign an anti-establishment approach to crack down on corruption and crime and turn the economy around. It won him 55% of the vote.

He is often dubbed “Trump of the Tropics,” and like every byname it’s overly simplistic. But like his American counterpart, Mr. Bolsonaro tests all conventions, and often with gusto. As a national legislator, he once told a congresswoman she wasn’t worth raping, and that he’d rather a son be killed than be gay.

Three “B’s” are said to have won him the presidency: Bible, bullet, and beef. And in Cuiabá, the state capital of Mato Grosso, lies the beef vote. The once sleepy capital, considered a gate to the Amazon, has grown rapidly alongside growth in agribusiness, from cattle ranching to commodity exports like soy and corn.

Rafael Yonekubo runs a state grassroots campaign called Direita Mato Grosso, whose WhatsApp groups have attracted young voters concerned about corruption and crime. A jeweler who was once assaulted at gunpoint inside his store, he was drawn to Mr. Bolsonaro’s early speeches about “good guys” like himself, who should be able to carry guns to protect themselves from the “bandits.”

“We were all sick of a lack of security, while the level of corruption was mounting,” Mr. Yonekubo says.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Rafael Yonekubo, the coordinator for Direita MT, organizes grassroots support for President Jair Bolsonaro.

For Edson Arruda, a young pastor at a tiny storefront evangelical church in downtown Cuiabá, it’s about “Bibles.” On a recent Monday, two dozen members show up for noon service. Music blares as the bishop enters the room, apologizing for being late. He fires up Christian YouTube songs on his laptop, as the congregation belts out words by heart.

“Bolsonaro embraces family values, and the family is the base of our society,” says Mr. Arruda. “That’s why 90% of the people here support him.”

Defending democracy?

That support has dipped since the election. But from the streets, it’s often hard to perceive.

There have been some protests, especially over environmental policies. Dozens of demonstrations took place this summer, when Amazon fires drew international attention, after the president decried them as a left-wing conspiracy. There have been growing calls for impeachment from intellectuals and, increasingly, the political opposition.

But as the rest of Latin America erupted in protest last year, Brazil was eerily quiet, says Carlos Sanches, co-founder of the Secret Bar. Hoping to invigorate the opposition, he and Ms. Vasconcelos began their gatherings, modeling them on Prohibition-era speak-easies in the U.S. About 70 people turned up to monthly meetings, and they plan to seed the movement in other cities, though that has been stymied by COVID-19.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Luiz Inacio Almeide sits outside a cafe in the Centro Historico of Cuiaba. He says he likes Jair Bolsonaro because the president is a former military officer and the country needs discipline.

Similar fears about democracy’s fragility extend beyond Brazil. According to the latest Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University, which has tracked regional attitudes since 2004, support for democracy is at an all-time low. Amid corruption, crime, and weakened economies that followed the commodities boom in the 2000s, many voters decided strongman leadership is needed. Only 60% of Brazilians say that democracy is the best form of government.

Luiz Inácio Almeide, a retired engineer, sits on a patio in the historic center of Cuiabá, where colonial facades are splashed with vibrant street art. He says he supports democracy, freedom of expression, and personal choice, and admires former U.S. President Barack Obama. But he welcomes Mr. Bolsonaro’s new style and army background. “The country needs military discipline, after so many years of corruption and lies,” Mr. Almeide says.

But for others it’s an ominous turn. Mr. Bolsonaro has often voiced nostalgia for Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. He has filled his cabinet with military men and attacked democratic institutions like the free press, Supreme Court, and Congress.

“I think left to his own devices, he is a threat to democracy,” says Thomas Trebat, director of Columbia University’s Global Center in Rio de Janeiro. While the Brazilian media and opposition have proved a formidable defense, he says, “as long as you’ve got a guy lighting matches near a room full of gasoline cans, you’ve got to worry.”

SOURCE: Varieties of Democracy Report 2020
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Today, amid the coronavirus crisis, just 34% of Brazilians support the president, according to a Datafolha poll, and 15% of respondents who voted for him now say they regret it. The pots-and-pans protests may mark a turn, as well. Governors who once supported Mr. Bolsonaro have since publicly condemned his policies on the coronavirus, and a divided opposition has united, increasing calls for the president’s impeachment.

Still, 59% of Brazilians don’t want to see him resign, according to another Datafolha poll released last week.

“It seems people are just waiting for [Mr. Bolsonaro] to fall,” Mr. Sanches said at a gathering of friends.

And he says that could be too late.

Us versus them

Cândido Moreira Rodrigues, a history professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso, spends a good deal of his time trying to dissect Mr. Bolsonaro’s support. His desk is littered with books about democracy and its decline: Robert Paxton’s “The Anatomy of Fascism,” or Manuel Castells’ “Rupture: The Crisis of Liberal Democracy.”

Like many analysts studying democracy’s demise worldwide, the professor believes that the electorate no longer trusts politicians to address their problems, against the backdrop of rising inequalities and a globalized economy. At the same time, cultural wars have upended values systems in ways radicals across the spectrum have seized upon.

“The far-right in Brazil has used the opportunity of this fracture to say, ‘We are the only option,’” Dr. Rodrigues says. He doesn’t believe an old-style military coup is likely, but warns that “a new form, like Donald Trump has used to subvert democracy, is possible.”

In Brazil, such fractures have led to toxic polarization – a fundamental feature of autocratization, according to V-Dem.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Henrique Lopes do Nascimento, who works at the teachers union of Mato Gross, stands in a classroom Feb. 3, 2020, in Cuiabá. He says teachers are afraid to teach history amid Brazil's polarization since Jair Bolsonaro came to office.

Henrique Lopes do Nascimento, who works at the teachers union of Mato Grosso, says that some teachers have been scared about reports of parents complaining lessons about the fall of the military dictatorship were communist propaganda. “Teachers complain about being afraid to express their opinions in the school space, for fear of being labeled, and watched,” he says.

The same is true in the streets. “If you don’t support Bolsonaro, you are called thieves, jerks,” and, of course, “a communist,” says Secret Bar founder Ms. Vasconcelos, although it cuts both ways. The Secret Bar doesn’t allow in people who voted for Mr. Bolsonaro, even if they now regret it.

“Us versus them” is inherent in the “good versus bad” talk that Mr. Yonekubo references, and the discourse about family values and who has them. When Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa was nominated for an Oscar this year for her documentary “The Edge of Democracy” – which takes a decidedly left-wing stance on the politics leading up to Mr. Bolsonaro’s victory – the government issued a statement calling her an “anti-Brazil activist.”

“Polarization becomes dangerous to democracy and becomes a useful tool for ‘wannabe dictators’ when that means that you no longer have a dialogue with the other side,” says Dr. Lindberg, of V-Dem. “The other side is seen as an enemy and it becomes more like a war. You either win or you lose. And if the other side wins, then they’re going to take everything from you or take all the things from you that you cherish. So it becomes an issue of life and death. That creates fear.”

Edna Mahnic admits to feeling some of that fear, but it doesn’t show. A local politician for the opposition Workers’ Party in Primavera do Leste, three hours east of Cuiabá, she is not hiding her allegiances this morning: Her blouse, big beaded necklace, and fingernails are all red, the international symbol of socialism.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Edna Mahnic, a city councilwoman from a nearby town, speaks about the political climate in Brazil. Ms. Mahnic was harassed online and on the street as an opposition leader in a city with strong support for President Jair Bolsonaro. She wears red to represent the Workers' Party.

But she has been shaken since last spring. The problem started after Mr. Bolsonaro railed against Brazil’s becoming a haven for gay sex tourism. “If you want to come here and have sex with a woman, go for your life,” he added – angering many, including Ms. Mahnic, who said his comments were misogynistic, implicitly putting out a welcome mat for straight sex tourism and prostitution.

“I’m a woman, I’m a mother, I’m a daughter,” she says. “I’m also a representative. And the only one who represents the other side,” she says. “I had to take a stand.”

She became an immediate target. Online critics accused her of calling all Brazilian women prostitutes, and the vitriol continues. Sometimes she wonders if the attacks online could turn into a real attack on the street. Still, she is running for reelection in municipal elections this fall – the first major test for Mr. Bolsonaro’s strength.

“We have to defend democracy, and we cannot lose the right of democratic choice, even if it is weakened,” she says. “For Brazilians, we’ve only been able to vote for a short time. We cannot lose the right to say what we think and choose what we want.”

SOURCE: The Economist Intelligence Unit 2019 Democracy Index
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Why coronavirus clampdown is proving risky for Arab regimes

This next piece explores a region where autocracy has long had sturdy footholds. In many cases that has enabled governments to impose tight lockdowns. But residents are starting to push back.

Hussein Malla/AP
A driver argues with police after being fined for violating strict Lebanese measures, based on odd and even plate numbers, to limit traffic, part of a plan to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, in Beirut, Lebanon, April 7, 2020.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Just weeks ago, Arab regimes appeared to be in a strong position. Egypt had silenced all opposition; monarchies were secured; insurgencies seemingly defeated. But a misreading of the pandemic allowed the coronavirus to spread undetected for weeks in many countries. Delayed government responses have exposed mismanagement, deteriorating health services, and widening inequality.

Now, as Arab regimes roll out their armies to tackle the crisis, the toll is threatening their claim to legitimacy, rooted in stability and security. Many of the problems that sparked street protests over the past decade, analysts agree, are likely to become more acute.

Abu Mohammed, forced to shut the Amman spice shop that supported his family of seven, is a month behind on rent and has reduced his groceries by half. “We cannot get bread. We cannot see a doctor. We cannot get medicine,” he says. “We reach a point where we ask: What is the point of this security?”

“When the government is seen as incompetent and unable to manage a crisis, that changes the political equation,” says an Algerian analyst. “You now have not only the people in the streets, but people who supported the system beginning to see it as illegitimate. It is a legitimacy crisis.”


3. Why coronavirus clampdown is proving risky for Arab regimes

Abu Mohammed has played life by the rules.

The 45-year-old merchant has worked hard, paid his taxes, stayed out of politics and protests, and been a loyal supporter of a government that promises security and stability.

Yet amid a COVID-19 lockdown, he was forced on March 19 to close his East Amman spice shop, which generated $900 a month to support his family of seven. He is now a month behind on rent and has reduced his weekly groceries by half.

“We cannot get bread, we cannot see a doctor, we cannot get medicine. We reach a point where we ask: What is the point of this security?” he says via telephone.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Such sentiments are bad news for leaders across the Arab world, where people just like Abu Mohammed comprise a core of popular support for regimes that are less than democratic.

A misreading of the COVID-19 pandemic as a “foreign problem” allowed the virus to spread undetected for weeks in many Arab countries. Their delayed response has exposed mismanagement, deteriorating health services, and widening inequality.

As Arab regimes roll out their armies to tackle the crisis, the virus’s toll is threatening their claim to legitimacy. Many of the root problems that sparked street protests over the past decade, analysts agree, are likely to become more acute. Citizens say it is “inevitable.”


Just a few weeks ago, Arab regimes appeared to be in a strong position. Egypt had silenced all opposition and had a near-complete control of the media; monarchies were secured; terrorist insurgencies seemingly defeated.

Even where recent waves of protests had threatened to upend nondemocratic political systems – the so-called Arab Spring 2.0 – the status quo was prevailing.

Elites in Algeria formed a government despite elections marred by a boycott. In Lebanon, the protest movement was fizzling. Iraqi protesters who had braved gunfire for months were overshadowed by a brewing conflict in Iraq between the United States and Iran.

Yet the regimes’ COVID-19 responses have been marked by confusion and desperation, undermining stability. 

In Egypt, where 95% of the population lives on 5% of the land, Cairo spent much of its initial weeks suppressing reports about the pandemic rather than tackling it head on.

Since then, Cairo has quarantined a dozen villages, closed several hospitals due to transmission among medical staff, and transformed schools into makeshift hospitals as confirmed cases rose past 1,000.

In Iraq, where rival political and sectarian factions have struggled to form a new government, the Health Ministry spent weeks attempting to receive a mere $5 million from the Treasury.

Ramzi Boudina/Reuters
Algerian police officers with protective face masks stand guard during an anti-government protest in Algiers, March 13, 2020.

Health care systems

Algeria, home to the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in North Africa, with more than 1,600 as of Thursday, has the highest virus mortality rate in the entire Arab world at 13%.

The crisis has revealed hollowed out public health care across the region.

Italy, whose health sector was overwhelmed by the virus, has 30 hospital beds per 10,000 residents. In comparison, Egypt has 15.6 beds per 10,000, Jordan 14, Iraq 13.8, and Morocco 11, according to World Health Organization figures. Algeria’s hospitals host only 400 ICU units for 40 million people, experts say.

Arab regimes have recently resorted to launching public fundraisers to finance their responses: Morocco has raised $3 billion from businesses, royalty, and wealthy citizens; Tunisia $3 million; and Jordan and Egypt have gathered tens of millions in pledges.

Yet even these pledge drives have ignited frustrations.

“Billions in our tax dollars and natural resources have been stolen by the elites, and they think by giving a few thousand dollars back while we die at home they become patriots,” says Mohammed Mustafa, an Egyptian shop owner, via a messaging app.

Middle-class squeeze

Since March 20, Arab states have imposed a range of restrictions, from night curfews in Egypt to full lockdowns in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. All have restricted movement among towns, villages, and provinces.

Yet these lockdowns have placed the burden of the crisis on the middle class and working class – traditional pillars of support for autocratic regimes.

And most Arab states do not have unemployment benefits. As of 2019, only 5% of the unemployed across the Arab world qualify for some form of benefit, the International Labour Organization estimates.

Small-business owners, small farmers, day laborers, and vendors – the so-called informal sector – do not receive a set salary, have no protections, and rely on daily and weekly commercial transactions for their survival.

In Egypt, 50% of all workers are in this informal sector. In Morocco it’s 75%, Algeria 57%.

With their travel curtailed and unable to work, this large segment of society is seeing their savings dwindle as they enter their third or fourth week under curfew, analysts and officials say.

“This vulnerable segment is losing out completely: They are not poor enough to qualify for state assistance and not rich enough to escape the consequences of this crisis,” says Tarik Yousef, director at the Brookings Doha Center and an expert in development economics.

“The COVID crisis exposes these inequalities, which not only become glaringly clear, but will influence how fast people will recover.”

Already there are signs that communities are chafing at the curfews and restrictions. Protests have erupted in villages under quarantine in Egypt and in impoverished neighborhoods in Tunis. Scattered rallies were reportedly held in Morocco.

In Lebanon, a taxi driver set his car afire and fruit vendors threw their goods in the streets in protest.

“Governments around the world decide on social distancing,” says Carmen Geha, a Lebanese activist and assistant professor at the American University of Beirut. “But here social distancing means … you’re not going to sell your crops for the day. You are not going to feed your kids. That’s it.”

Morocco has gotten out in front by designating part of its COVID fund to support workers in the informal sector with $80 to $100 stipends. Jordan has enacted an emergency law preventing layoffs and obliging most employers to continue salaries for March and April.

Yet Western diplomats voice concerns for social unrest in the region should COVID-19 restrictions stretch for months. And Jordan and Gulf security sources say they fear a prolonged shutdown, saying, “We cannot let the virus spread or despair spread.”

Hassan Ammar/AP
Lebanese police arrest an activist who tried to set himself on fire after security forces asked protesters in Martyrs Square to dismantle their tents and go home in line with a nighttime curfew that Lebanon imposed to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, in Beirut, March 27, 2020.

Oil, tourism woes

The collapse in oil prices has deepened the crisis.

Iraq’s oil revenues dropped from $5.5 billion in February to $2.99 billion in March. Government officials say they need oil revenues to stay at $5 billion a month to cover costs and pay salaries.

“For now, the government is just trying to stave off multiple crises and prevent total collapse,” says Sajad Ziyad, a political analyst in Baghdad.

“It needs to pay citizens. It needs to make sure coronavirus doesn’t spread. It needs to stop a war going on between Iran and the U.S. in its territory. It needs to try to find some agreement to form the next government.”

Meanwhile, the loss of travel and tourism has dealt a blow to several states. Tourism accounts for 19% of Morocco’s GDP, 15% in Tunisia, and 12% in Egypt and Jordan, employing hundreds of thousands.

Despite deploying armies to the streets and imposing curfews, Arab strongmen are suddenly appearing powerless in the face of the virus, with their image as guarantors of stability shattered.

“When the government is seen as incompetent and unable to manage a crisis, that changes the political equation,” says Algerian analyst Zine Labidine Ghebouli. 

“You now have not only the people in the streets, but people who supported the system beginning to see it as illegitimate. It is a legitimacy crisis.”

Compounding the regimes’ fragility: world and regional powers, from the Gulf Arabs to Iran, cannot bail them out.

“In the short term this crisis snuffs out a lot of activism,” says Julien Barnes-Dacey, Mideast expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

“But once the health situation becomes manageable, this potentially unleashes a wave of challenges for incumbent elites.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The web’s a threat to democracy? Think again, Taiwan says.

And in another exploration of governance, this next story takes us to Taiwan, where the young democracy is using technology to forge consensus.

Ahn Young-joon/AP/File
Taiwan's digital minister Audrey Tang listens during an interview in Seoul, South Korea April 12, 2017. Ms. Tang, a computer prodigy and entrepreneur, hopes to use the internet to transform public involvement in government.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 8 Min. )

Audrey Tang has worn a lot of hats. As a gifted teenager, she won recognition as a software programmer, and founded her own company. She’s been a Silicon Valley worker and a “hacktivist.” She’s a Taiwanese millennial: a technically minded generation, with a strong sense of Taiwanese identity, and the first in decades to be able to express themselves freely. 

And she’s also a minister in the Taiwanese Cabinet – the youngest-ever appointed without a portfolio, and the nation’s first transgender minister. 

Ms. Tang’s ministry, now focused on digital issues, is leading a charge to strengthen the island’s democracy with technology – harnessing digital tools to foster public engagement, seek consensus, and seek solutions in everything from the environment, to national security, to the new coronavirus. An “e-mask ordering system” and online mask map are part of a system that guarantees three masks per week for each of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens, while allowing it to donate millions more abroad. 

Taiwan’s ability to make technology invigorate democracy, not undermine it, holds lessons for other countries, digital experts say. 

“Our democracy is very young” and agile, says Ms. Tang. “We don’t have hundreds of years of proud tradition,” she laughs. “We change very quickly, adapt very quickly.”


4. The web’s a threat to democracy? Think again, Taiwan says.

Audrey Tang moves gracefully through a Taipei convenience store, collecting her pre-ordered face mask. “Thank you,” she says with a Buddha-like smile, bowing slightly as she receives the mask from a uniformed store clerk. It all takes less than a minute.

The mask distribution system demonstrated by Ms. Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, guarantees three masks per week for each of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens. Engineers with Ms. Tang’s ministry developed an online app – “the e-mask ordering system” – preventing panic and long lines at stores, while boosting trust in the government response. In days, Ms. Tang also created a “mask information platform” displaying scores of real-time maps detailing the mask supply at pharmacies across the island.

These innovations mark just one example of how the island nation of Taiwan, with wizard-like efficiency, has so far pulled off one of the world’s most striking coronavirus success stories. Located just 80 miles off the coast of mainland China, Taiwan faced early exposure to the virus: Hundreds of thousands of its citizens work in China, and millions of Chinese visit the island each year. But Taiwan so far has had five deaths and fewer than 400 cases.

Yet the significance of this campaign goes far beyond the current public health crisis. It is further evidence of how Taiwan’s advances in digital self-governance and civic technology are strengthening its democratic system, digital experts and officials say.

The constructive engagement of the public in bottom-up governance has led to concrete advances in areas ranging from the environment to transportation and national security.

To be sure, 21st -century technologies such as social media have intensified polarization and anger, weakening liberal democracies. But Taiwan has figured out how to make technology invigorate democracy, not undermine it, they say.

“Our democracy is very young” and agile, says Ms. Tang. “We don’t have hundreds of years of proud tradition,” she laughs. “We change very quickly, adapt very quickly.”

Taiwan has emerged as a cutting-edge model – a political laboratory of sorts – for using technology to improve democratic governance. It’s an example other countries are eager to learn from, from New Zealand to Italy to the United States.

One key element of Taiwan’s success is its vibrant tech culture, which sprang into action this winter as the island confronted the potentially disastrous outbreak of coronavirus just offshore, in China.

Taiwan’s “remarkable ... culture of civic tech participation” saw software engineers start spontaneously building online tools to combat the virus without waiting for a government go-ahead, says E. Glen Weyl, founder and chairman of the RadicalxChange Foundation, a nonprofit focused on improving democratic systems and market economies.

“As soon as people got concerned, it didn’t just get channeled into panic. ... They just built the tools,” such as the face mask maps, says Dr. Weyl, who is co-chair of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics’ COVID-19 Rapid Response committee. “They went to the tools instead of raiding their local stores.”

Chiang Ying-ying/AP
Pedestrians wear face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus on the streets of Taipei, Taiwan, March 31, 2020. Digital tools have helped Taiwan's government distribute masks.

A new generation

In her bright, airy office at downtown Taipei’s Social Innovation Lab in January, Digital Minister Tang, wearing a flowing, dropped-shoulder jacket, is about to launch this year’s Presidential Hackathon.

Drawing on Taiwan’s hacker culture, the event is like a highly transparent national brainstorming and data-crunching exercise to produce creative solutions to priority problems. Most strikingly, the competition has binding results: Winning teams are guaranteed their projects will be put on the national policy agenda, with a budget.

In another display of radical openness, Ms. Tang welcomes members of the public to drop by and trade ideas with her every Wednesday at the lab, a one-stop hub for government services and social entrepreneurs, built in a former Air Force headquarters.

Such scenes would have been unthinkable in Taiwan just a generation ago, when the island was still under a martial law regime imposed by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in 1949 and not lifted until 1987. Since then, though, Taiwan’s democracy has grown up, evolving along with the rise of personal computers, press freedom, the internet, and social media. Taiwan held its first presidential election in 1996, the year that the World Wide Web became popular. In successive elections, candidates “imagined their administration in tandem with ... new digital advancements,” says Ms. Tang.

Ms. Tang is representative of Taiwan’s millennial generation, one that is technically minded, with a strong sense of Taiwanese identity, and the first in decades to be able to express themselves freely. A gifted, largely self-taught polymath, she gravitated to computers early. As a teenager, she won recognition as a talented free software programmer, starting her own company at 16 and working in Silicon Valley.

Then politics called. In March 2014, Ms. Tang joined Taiwan’s student-led “sunflower” protest movement, which for three weeks seized control of the national legislature to oppose a pending free trade agreement with China. Students argued the accord would allow Beijing to gain control of strategic sectors of Taiwan’s economy, and demanded an open debate over the agreement, which the government classified as internal. Ms. Tang and other “hacktivists” – tech-savvy activists who design their own solutions to government issues – set up communications and transmitted the debate to millions of people. 

The movement won broad public support, helping prompt a change in government in 2016 with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen. Protests morphed into sustained participation, as “hactivists” joined the government. President Tsai’s administration recruited dozens of young social entrepreneurs and innovators to serve as “reverse mentors” for older ministers, and to broaden public engagement. Ms. Tang became Taiwan’s youngest-ever minister without portfolio, focused on digital governance. She is also Taiwan’s first transgender minister. 

A self-described “conservative anarchist,” Ms. Tang rejects a top-down approach that assumes the government has all the answers, saying her job as minister is to facilitate the marriage of good ideas and execution. “She has a tremendous faith in the capacity of people,” says Dr. Weyl, who has worked with Ms. Tang on several civic technology projects and serves with her on the board of RadicalxChange. Brilliant and empathetic, she inspires people to action, he says, adding, “Audrey is the most impressive person I have ever met.”

Forging consensus

Along Taiwan’s southwestern coast, streams flow through mango orchards and rice paddies toward the sea, some carrying unwanted pollutants. Soon, though, a cheap, solar-powered device called a “water box” will proliferate along Taiwan’s waterways, measuring pollutants. The data will be recorded on a ledger protected by blockchain technology.

The water boxes could prove revolutionary in allowing Taiwan’s farmers, citizens, and industrial plants to detect and stop sources of water pollution, Ms. Tang says. The government will sanction polluters by cutting their electricity and water supply. New Zealand has sent representatives to study the initiative for possible use.

The innovative device – designed by a team from the 2019 Presidential Hackathon – is just one of many examples of the creative power of citizens unleashed by Taiwan’s digital democracy.

Citizens help select the projects on Taiwan’s government-run “Join” e-democracy platform, which has so far hosted more than 10 million unique visitors, using a sophisticated system called quadratic voting. Each person has 99 points to award to their favorite projects based on their preferences, resulting in a more “fair, balanced, and ... pro-social” outcome because it more fully captures people’s choices, Ms. Tang says.

“Most people feel they have won after they see the tallying, instead of half the people feeling that they have lost,” she explains. Moreover, anyone can launch an e-petition on the Join platform, and once it reaches 5,000 signatures, the relevant ministries must respond in public.

In this way, Taiwan’s government invites change from the inside out, through transparency, open data, and involvement of the public in solving national problems. Challenges such as bureaucratic resistance and civil servants preferring anonymity are real, Ms. Tang says, but President Tsai’s commitment to act on the grassroots projects helps overcome them.

From the outside in, meanwhile, Taiwan’s civic technology community takes the initiative to improve and demystify government, and organize debates on key issues. A movement called g0v, or “gov-zero” – made up of coders, NGOs, and civil servants – clones government websites and builds better versions, which the government often adopts. It also runs a forum called vTaiwan that has facilitated debate on dozens of heated issues, from Uber regulation to online liquor sales – often shaping government policy.

vTaiwan uses a tool created by the Seattle-based nonprofit Pol.is that applies machine learning to help large groups achieve consensus through civil debate. A key feature keeping the debate constructive is that everyone must offer ideas by posting comments. Others can click “agree” “disagree” or “pass” on these ideas, but there is no “reply” function – a practice that invites trolling. As the debate unfolds, Pol.is creates an interactive map grouping people according to viewpoints and showing areas of agreement.  

Taiwan is “an incredible petri dish for democratic practices,” says Colin Megill, CEO and co-founder of Pol.is. The nation’s advances are spreading overseas, with Italy setting up its own g0v program, for example.

Taiwan’s virtuous circle of public engagement and government action builds trust, which fuels more enthusiastic participation. The work of consensus-building also inoculates Taiwan against political tribalism and nationalist populism, Ms. Tang stresses. People “feel they are after all the same polity,” she says.

Masks and more

Taiwan’s digital democracy activists have often found themselves coming to the island’s defense.

In recent years, they’ve developed instant fact-checking tools that have helped fend off an onslaught of 30 million monthly cyberattacks – much of it disinformation from mainland China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory.

Most recently with the coronavirus pandemic, Taiwan’s “hacktivists” figured out how to help track cases. After Taiwan’s government released locations visited by travelers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, for example, they quickly built a location history tool that allowed people to compare their whereabouts with those of confirmed cases, while also protecting their privacy.

Such pinpoint tools have allowed Taiwan to minimize its outbreak without shutting down the economy.

Taiwan’s use of technology to enlist its citizenry in collaborative problem-solving also appears to have helped protect the island from polarization, populist movements, and political gridlock. “All of the major things that other democracies have been struggling with, somehow Taiwan has avoided, and COVID is just the most extreme example of this,” says Dr. Weyl. Learning from Taiwan, he says, could “help save liberal democracy.”

Ms. Tang describes Taiwan as “just part of this global movement to try to improve democracy’s relevance.” “As we say, Taiwan can help,” she stressed, quoting her government’s slogan, in an appearance in Washington, D.C., last month. Help indeed: Taiwan donated 2 million surgical masks to the United States, with delivery expected this week.

On Film

Hunker down with films starring Humphrey Bogart

Film critic Peter Rainer used to have a poster of Humphrey Bogart on his wall as a teen. “Bogart is still my favorite actor,” he says, “which is why I wanted to offer him up this week for some much-needed movie balm.”


5. Hunker down with films starring Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart was my favorite actor when I was a kid growing up in the 1960s. I had a big poster of him from “Casablanca” taped to my bedroom wall, and I would unfailingly set my alarm clock to catch his old movies on late-night television. He was a tough guy – a prerequisite in a movie star for me in those days. It wasn’t until later that I discovered he came from a moneyed family and attended a ritzy prep school. And what kind of name for a tough guy is “Humphrey” anyway? It is apparently a myth, however, that Bogie, in a bit role on Broadway, spoke the line “Tennis, anyone?” Whew!

Bogart is still my favorite actor, which is why I wanted to offer him up this week for some much-needed movie balm. The truth is, he was always much more than a tough guy in the movies, even when he was playing a tough guy, which was often. His gangsters and private detectives and outlaws were never routine: They had a sly knowingness, a dark wit, even a sadness. His first great performance was in Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra” in 1941, where, opposite Ida Lupino, he played Roy Earle, a soulful gangster past his prime. The performance was unlike anything the crime genre had featured before. Later that year he appeared as Sam Spade in his big breakthrough, “The Maltese Falcon,” inaugurating a long and celebrated collaboration with its writer-director, John Huston.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

For those who think Bogart lacked versatility, I recommend two of his best Huston films, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen.” The roles could not be further apart.

“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

In “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), one of the greatest American movies ever made, Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, one of a trio of prospectors – the others are played by Tim Holt and, indelibly, John’s father, Walter Huston – who are torn apart by greed after discovering gold in the Mexican mountains. There was often a slightly menacing edge to even Bogart’s most sympathetic characters – think of Rick in “Casablanca.” In “Sierra Madre,” Bogart gives a classic portrayal of mounting paranoia that presaged his work as Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny.” When Bogart boasts that “Nobody puts one over on Fred C. Dobbs,” his self-delusion crackles. (Unrated)

“The African Queen”

As Charlie Allnutt, the scruffy tramp steamer captain in “The African Queen” (1951), Bogart is playing opposite Katharine Hepburn’s Rose, a priggish British spinster missionary with whom he escapes downriver from the Germans in the run-up to World War I. Thrown together by fate, Charlie and Rose are perhaps the greatest odd couple in movie history. She can barely tolerate this cigar-chomping river rat – a tipoff, of course, that they are made for each other. Bogart is at his funniest in this film. (He won the Oscar for best actor.) Because he is a total innocent, Charlie’s slovenly cluelessness is supremely endearing. He just wants to do right by “Rosie,” and when she finally comes around, it’s as if the skies parted. Hepburn is at her comic best here, too. Reportedly, while on location in Africa, she had big trouble figuring out how to play the character. Finally Huston told her to play Rosie as if she were Eleanor Roosevelt, and from then on it was literally smooth sailing. Hepburn would later say it was the best piece of direction she ever got. (Rated PG)

“The Big Sleep”

Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” (1946) has Bogart in one of his most entertainingly iconic performances as Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe. It was his second film playing opposite Lauren Bacall – the first was “To Have and Have Not” two years earlier – and the smoke coming off the screen isn’t only from cigarettes. (They were married six months after shooting ended.) The convoluted plot for this movie makes very little sense. When Hawks and his co-screenwriters (one of whom was William Faulkner) asked Chandler for clarification, he apparently wasn’t much help. But what “The Big Sleep” demonstrates is that if a movie is as endlessly enjoyable as this one, who needs sense? Bogie and Bacall had a logic all their own. (Unrated)     

These films are available to rent on Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes.

Other headline stories we’re watching

(Get live updates throughout the day.)

The Monitor's View

The attraction of peace to end COVID-19

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

The most powerful body in the United Nations, the Security Council, has largely been silent on the COVID-19 emergency. On Thursday, that silence began to change. The council finally met to address the crisis. It has been under pressure from many nations to act because of the global nature of the outbreak. In addition, its members could no longer ignore a compelling success story driven by the U.N.’s chief administrator.

On March 23, Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in all the world’s violent conflicts. It turns out his call for peace was a powerful attraction. Since then, cease-fires have been endorsed by warring parties in 12 countries.

The ultimate political cohesion against the virus would be a united Security Council. It could show there is something worthwhile to support – the inklings of peace around the world – that may help lessen the current disputes over how to deal with the virus crisis. Peace is not merely the absence of war but a positive force for repairing and restoring societies. The current silence of guns in many countries begins the process. That silence has pushed the Security Council out of its silence.


The attraction of peace to end COVID-19

The most powerful body in the United Nations, the 15-member Security Council, has largely been silent on the COVID-19 emergency. The main reason is that two of the council’s veto-wielding members, China and the United States, disagree over the pandemic’s origins and the response to it. On Thursday, that silence began to change.

The council finally met to address the crisis although in secret and via videoconferencing. It has been under pressure from many nations to act because of the global nature of the outbreak. In addition, its members could no longer ignore a compelling success story driven by the U.N.’s chief administrator.

On March 23, Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in all the world’s violent conflicts in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and to be able to deal with the humanitarian consequences.

It turns out his call for peace was a powerful attraction.

Since then, cease-fires have been endorsed by warring parties in 12 countries, from the Philippines to Colombia. One in particular stands out. On Thursday, Saudi Arabia announced it would observe a two-week cease-fire in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, in response to Mr. Guterres’ request. That five-year conflict, which is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its rival, Iran, has resulted in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and over 100,000 deaths – more than from COVID-19 so far.

In the council meeting, Mr. Guterres was expected to give an update on his peacemaking efforts and to ask for a U.N. structure to closely track the cease-fires. With combatants under such scrutiny, they might prolong the truces and negotiate deals to end their conflicts. In addition, the U.N. and other global bodies could use the pause to seek solutions to the underlying social and economic causes of the local wars.

Mr. Guterres’ original plea was that “there should be only one fight in our world today: our shared battle against COVID-19.” This “common enemy,” he added, doesn’t care about the human divisions that drive today’s violent conflicts.

The ultimate political cohesion against the virus would be a united Security Council. It could show there is something worthwhile to support – the inklings of peace around the world – that may help lessen the current disputes over how to deal with the virus crisis.

Peace is not merely the absence of war but a positive force for repairing and restoring societies. The current silence of guns in many countries begins the process That silence has pushed the Security Council out of its silence.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Why we love Jesus

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

At Easter and always, each of us can dedicate ourselves to following the path Jesus pointed out – and experience more of the healing, moral regeneration and deeper joy that come from taking his teachings and example to heart.


1. Why we love Jesus

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
Loading the player...

During Christ Jesus’ three-year ministry, he was widely known for the many healings he brought to multitudes of people. They were healings of all types of problems – he even raised several individuals from the dead – and people came from long distances to see him, because they too wanted to be healed.

But Jesus hadn’t come only to heal. He also came to teach the way of salvation from sin, disease, and death. His healings served as living proofs of the truth he taught.

While the people loved to be healed, many of them didn’t so much like the truth he preached. The book of John recounts one incident in which some of his followers rejected what he was trying to teach them about the spiritual nature of life. “Doth this offend you?” he asked. “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” But they couldn’t accept it, and the Bible says, “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:61, 63, 66).

Jesus’ teachings and healings directly challenged the entrenched assumptions of materialism as to the nature of life, and this disturbed and even enraged what St. Paul calls “the carnal mind,” the fleshly, materially based sense of life that “is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7). This enmity against God – this hatred of the divine Truth, or Christ, that Jesus represented and expressed as the Son of God – is what ultimately brought about Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus had the power to avoid being taken and crucified, and the human element in this utterly selfless man struggled with the prospect of being put through that terrible ordeal. But he knew it was necessary. He told two of his disciples, Andrew and Philip, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour” (John 12:27).

More than any of Jesus’ other works, what followed after the crucifixion – raising himself from the grave – was a resounding proof of the truth that underlay Jesus’ entire mission: that God, divine Spirit, is the life of man. It showed that all men and women, as God has created them, are actually spiritual and immortal, the inextinguishable expression of God.

The founder of the Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, writes in the textbook of Christian Science: “The efficacy of the crucifixion lay in the practical affection and goodness it demonstrated for mankind. The truth had been lived among men; but until they saw that it enabled their Master to triumph over the grave, his own disciples could not admit such an event to be possible” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 24).

Further on Mrs. Eddy says of Jesus’ resurrection, “He proved Life to be deathless and Love to be the master of hate” (p. 44).

At this Easter season, it’s good to consider how we can best show our love for Jesus and our gratitude for his intense sacrifice and victory over death. It’s clear from the Bible that Jesus never wanted adulation. What he wanted was for people to understand the truth he was teaching and to begin living that truth and proving its practical healing effects.

Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). God being the true Life of all, life is indeed abundant, because Life is infinite Spirit. Since each of us is God’s spiritual expression, our life is infinitely abundant in harmony, joy, and unending purpose. Our life is safe in the keeping of eternal Spirit, divine Love.

As many have experienced, following Jesus in the understanding that our real Life is God brings evidence of this reality in tangible ways. We see it in physical healing, moral regeneration, and a more deeply settled happiness. We know and feel more keenly how loved we are by God.

The more we understand what Jesus taught and why he sacrificed for us so intensely, the more we love him and want to dedicate ourselves to following his teachings and example. This is how our love for Jesus is truly lived, every day.


Good night, Moon

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters
The pink supermoon, the biggest full moon of 2020, rises behind a lighthouse in Valletta, Malta, on April 8, 2020.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for spending time with us today. Come back tomorrow when we’ll explore an idea that many are becoming intimately familiar with: nature as a source of calm. 

Before you go, be sure to check out a bonus audio story from our “Navigating Uncertainty” series. Dominique Soguel explores similar themes to several of today’s stories, including freedom and governance.

More issues


Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.