How the world should deal with China and can US campaigns run without crowds? Plus: Denmark’s happiness museum, five resilient cities, Belarus cosies up to the west and Brazil’s offshore defences.
When John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, announced on a television news programme in March that he was undergoing a period of voluntary self-isolation, his next-door neighbour stepped in to help.
“He’s been bringing me a hot cup of coffee every morning,” says Tory, speaking on the phone from his apartment in downtown Toronto, from where he’s been leading the city’s effort to slow the coronavirus outbreak. “I haven’t even seen a single other person for 12 days. So it’s a very nice thing for him to do.”
Small acts such as this have become common in the city’s response to coronavirus, says Tory, who declared a state of emergency in March. “We are all in a dire situation,” he says. “But people are chipping in and helping to give others a bit of sunshine in their day.”
Toronto, with a population of six million, is North America’s fourth-largest city. It recorded several cases of the virus early in the outbreak, initially its Chinese and Iranian communities. But it was the city’s experience with the 2003 Sars epidemic, which hit Canada harder than anywhere else outside Asia, that has been deployed to tackle coronavirus now. “It was a stark, tragic lesson,” says Tory. “But in the aftermath, procedures were put in place to deal with the prevalence of an extremely contagious virus. So we’ve been helped by that terrible experience in 2003 because those protocols are still in place today.”
Precedent is obviously helpful in acting on a public-health crisis, says Tory, but in a situation where there are so many unknowns, and the consequences of measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus are so far-reaching, it is important to implement a city’s response carefully. Whether it’s postponing tax payments for independent firms, lifting restrictions on deliveries of food and other essentials, implementing a grace period on rent payments or repurposing buildings as shelters for vulnerable people, responses have to be carried out quickly, says Tory. “It’s about staying calm, exercising your judgment, co-ordinating with others,” he says. “It’s never really going to be enough. But we’re making progress.”
Right now, city governments have a role to play in ensuring that daily life continues. Below are four ways in which civic authorities around the globe are supporting their communities, keeping spirits high and preparing to rebuild.
- Loading bays:
Seattle’s transport department has created temporary pick-up zones near clusters of restaurants and cafés – a lifeline for businesses relying on selling takeaways.
- Quiet tourism: Kyoto launched an advertising campaign in Japan, inviting visitors to – cautiously – savour “empty Arashiyama” (a popular tourist district) while they can.
- Bike lanes: A surge in cyclists adhering to “social distancing” prompted Bogotá to install 116km of temporary bike lanes to ease congestion on its existing cycle network. Mexico City and New York have followed suit.
- Easing the tax burden: Milanese mayor Beppe Sala plans to help businesses bounce back by providing relief from council taxes. San Diego is going further by offering zero-interest microloans to affected businesses.
In Asia, where relations with China are everyone’s key strategic concern, the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has fallen along geopolitical lines, with ultra-loyal Cambodia at one end, Japan at the other and South Korea in the middle. As the virus took hold in Wuhan, Cambodia and Pakistan were quick to show their loyalties to China, opting not to evacuate their citizens while everyone else was fleeing. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen went further by offering to visit the stricken city in person to show his support.
Vietnam, on the other hand, had no qualms about shutting down transport connections and quarantining Chinese workers. Japan, whose own complex relationship with China is rooted in the two countries’ economic entwinement, was slow to impose restrictions on Chinese travellers in late January, apparently reluctant to lose out on the boost that Chinese tourists now bring to the country.
Displays of fealty have also been on show in Africa. Ethiopia was unwilling to shun its largest trading partner; the government-owned Ethiopian Airlines refused calls to join other carriers in grounding flights from China.
Washington and Beijing’s default mode is mutual mistrust and the attitude to coronavirus is no different. The US made supportive noises initially but it didn’t take long for the gloves to come off. Donald Trump’s administration was put out by China’s attempts to reshape the narrative and suggest that the virus originated in the US. Trump in return started referring to the “Chinese virus”.
Coming full circle, China has been sending out medical supplies and using the knowledge it gained to help other countries in need, particularly in Europe. Some 300 Chinese doctors arrived in Italy in March to help tackle the situation there. The disinformation campaign continues too, as China does its utmost to detach itself from the origin of the virus. When the dust settles, the world’s post-viral diplomatic alignments are sure to be a subject of fascination.
As ceo of the Happiness Research Institute think-tank in Copenhagen, Meik Wiking knows what makes the Nordic nations the world’s happiest. He is hopeful that he will be able to open his Happiness Museum in Copenhagen in May, which will focus on the history and science of what makes us smile.
When are people happiest?
In the UK there’s the Mappiness index: data is gathered via an app used to record how happy you feel a few times a day. Weekends are happier and Christmas day was the happiest of 2016. But political events have an impact: the fourth unhappiest day that year coincided with the Brexit result. The unhappiest was on 9 November, the day after Donald Trump was elected.
Which governments are using happiness effectively?
New Zealand announced last year that it will introduce a national wellbeing budget, so it must assess how satisfied people are with life. Future successful governments will be the ones that understand how to convert wealth into wellbeing; there are many places that have become richer but not happier.
Will happiness survive in Denmark?
Yes. We all experience sadness, loss, heartache, and pain; that is part of the human experience. It also teaches us about happiness. I think we will come out of coronavirus with a renewed appreciation for the little things in life; the everyday. There is also happiness to be found there.
Although Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has remained very much in Russia’s sphere of influence and has generally had frosty relations with the west. So it seems scarcely believable that a unit of the UK Royal Marines’ 42 Commando recently returned from an exercise in Belarus, codenamed Winter Partisan. The marines trained with the country’s 103rd Separate Guards Airborne Brigade in such disciplines as camouflage, abseiling and skiing.
It’s fair to wonder whether the marines’ invitation to Belarus had a cosmetic aspect. Recently, the nation’s autocratic president, Alexander Lukashenko, has appeared to suggest that he wants to reorient his nation west, by hosting the recent visit of US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and increasing oil imports from Norway. But how different a relationship would Moscow tolerate? Earlier this year, Lukashenko worried out loud that Russia planned to annex Belarus entirely.
“Russia still sees Belarus as an ally,” says Ryhor Astapenia, founder of the Minsk-based Centre for New Ideas and now with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. “But Russia also understands that Belarus doesn’t have much choice: it’s always been economically dependent on Russia and there’s little chance of that changing.”
Who’s buying and who’s selling? We keep you abreast of significant defence deals.
In the basket: Four Tamandare-class frigates
Who’s buying: Brazil
Who’s selling: Águas Azuis – a consortium of Thyssen-Krupp and Embraer
Price: $2bn (€1.8bn)
Delivery date: 2025–2028
Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro arrived in office in 2019 promising to reinvigorate the country’s military but this order of four frigates is his first major defence procurement. The new ships, to be built at the Oceana Estaleiro shipyard in Itajai, Santa Catarina, are likely to play a key role in patrolling the so-called “Blue Amazon” – Brazil’s 3.5 million sq km offshore Exclusive Economic Zone, which includes potentially valuable oilfields.
Images: Royal Navy, Getty Images