- New cases of COVID-19 appeared in New Zealand last week, after 102 days without any known community transmission. So far, at least 69 active cases have been reported.
- Now the country is on lockdown, with the most strict measures set in the city of Auckland.
- The lockdowns sparked concerns about the upcoming general election, with citizens and politicians arguing that the delays in campaigning would not allow for a fair vote.
- In response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern moved the election back by four weeks, from Sept. 19 to Oct. 17.
New Coronavirus Cases Spark Concerns
New Zealand is postponing its national election by four weeks in response to new coronavirus cases that have suddenly appeared.
Last week, a new cluster of cases were reported in Auckland, the country’s largest city. As of Monday, there are believed to be at least 69 active cases.
Citizens quickly received confirmation of an outbreak and by last Wednesday the government had enacted a strict level three lockdown. Under it, people are required to stay home unless for essential activities, and public venues like museums, playgrounds and gyms are to remain closed. This was a huge deal for New Zealanders because they had just made it through 102 days without any known community transmission.
When the virus first appeared in New Zealand in March, the country spent five weeks under one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. That quick action and public cooperation allowed New Zealand to effectively eliminate the virus. While border controls remained in place, the country was able to return to fairly normal life, so this new wave of cases has caught many by surprise.
While Auckland has the most strict measures in place, the rest of the country was put into a level two lockdown, which caps gatherings at no more than 100, among other things. Both were extended until at least August 26 based on the most recent confirmed cases. However, that news made a lot of people concerned because the country’s general election was supposed to be just around the corner.
The election was set for September 19, with campaigning expected to really pick up in the weeks before, following the dissolution of parliament. Because of the outbreak, both citizens and politicians felt it would be impossible to proceed with a vote in a way that was fair. Among the list of concerts were arguments that there wouldn’t be enough time to rebook venues, print materials, and reorganize the election workforce.
Last week, National Party Leader Judith Collins, who is the leader of the opposition, called for the election to be delayed until November or potentially even until next year. Meanwhile, Winston Peters, deputy prime minister and leader of the New Zealand First Party, sent a letter to his coalition partner, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, also calling for a delay.
At the time, he said that until the alert level is dropped, the “playing field is hopelessly compromised.”
Prime Minister Delays Election
In a live-streamed press conference Monday, Prime Minister Ardern announced that she was delaying the election by four weeks, to October 17.
Ardern said that while she had the sole authority to determine when people cast ballots, she did consult with all the major parties in the country before making such a major decision.
“In the end what matters most is what is in the best interests of voters and our democracy,” she said. “Any decision to review the election date must be as free from partisan political interests as possible.”
Ultimately, she said that this compromise “provides sufficient time for parties to plan around the range of circumstances we could be campaigning under, for the electoral commission to prepare and for voters to feel assured of a safe, accessible and critical election.”
The new date keeps Election Day within the time frame set under New Zealand law, with the latest date possible being Nov 21. However, Ardern added that even if the outbreak gets worse, “we will be sticking with the date we have.”
The government can reassess if a further delay is needed, but there is currently no evidence to suggest it will be.
Public Opinion of Ardern
With the election delayed, now the New Zealand government can focus primarily on the coronavirus cases. According to local reports, health officials are moving quickly to test thousands of workers at airports and other points of entry to figure out how the virus reemerged.
So far, it seems that all of the cases appear to be linked through family or work connections and the infections outside Auckland were traced back to relatives in the city. Still, questions remain about whether or not this new wave could hurt Ardern.
According to the New York Times, Ardern’s approval ratings skyrocketed after the country’s first lockdown. However, Ardern is facing some scrutiny as officials try to determine what recently went wrong and how long this new set of restrictions will last.
Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand told the Times: “If it transpires that there was a considerable oversight, lax regulation or flawed implementation, that could have a very significant impact on the narrative.”
Still, he noted that there “is a deep reservoir of good will toward the prime minister,” and it is possible that her handling of the upcoming election will actually help her stay in many’s good graces.
“She might have just added 5 percent to her polling by making an announcement that many New Zealanders will think is reasonable, fair and sensible,” Shaw added.
In fact, a poll taken over the weekend from the New Zeland Herald-Kantar showed that 60% of New Zealanders favored a delay and early opinion polls indicate that Arbern’s Labour party is favored to win a second term.
Arderns response to the newest outbreak and any major decisions she makes in the next coming weeks could prove to be crucial for the Labour party.
E.U. and U.S. Sanction Russian Officials Over Navalny Detention
- The E.U. and U.S. coordinated new sanctions against seven Russian officials tied to the current fate of activist and Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
- More efforts are expected to follow, with officials claiming that 14 Russian entities tied to the manufacturing of Novichok – the rare nerve agents that supposedly poisoned Navalny – are the next to be sanctioned.
- Despite the sanctions, Biden’s administration hopes to be able to work with Russia on other world issues, such as nuclear arms in Iran and North Korea.
- Navalny himself isn’t likely to benefit from the sanctions as he’s serving a 2.5-year prison sentence in one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies.
Coordinated Efforts by E.U. and U.S.
The U.S. and E.U. both announced coordinated sanctions against Russia Tuesday morning over the poisoning, arrest, and detention of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
In particular, seven senior officials are targeted by the sanctions.
- Federal Security Service Director Aleksandr Bortnikov
- Chief of the Presidential Policy Directorate Andrei Yarin
- First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Sergei Kiriyenko
- Deputy Minister of Defense Aleksey Krivoruchko
- Deputy Minister of Defense Pavel Popov
- Federal Penitentiary Service director Alexander Kalashnikov
- Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov.
Both the E.U. and U.S. also plan to add fourteen entities that are involved in making the extremely deadly Russian nerve agent Novichok.
First Step For Biden
These sanctions are the first such action by the Biden administration against Russia and seem to be a tone shift from the previous administration. The Trump administration was considered relatively soft on Russia and only enacted a few sanctions over election interference, which were only softly enforced.
One U.S. official, according to NBC News reportedly said, that “today is the first such response, and there will be more to come.”
“The United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia nor are we seeking to escalate,” the official went on to add.
The man at the center of all this, Alexei Navalny, has been an outspoken critic of Putin who was arrested when he returned to Russia from Germany after being treated for Novichok poisoning.
He was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison over alleged fraud crimes and is reported to have been sent to one of Russia’s worst penal colonies outside of the city of Pokrov to serve out his term.
Biden Faces Criticism Over U.S. Airstrike in Syria
- On Friday, the U.S. conducted an airstrike against an Iranian-back militia in Syria after it shot rockets into northern Iraq and injured U.S. service personnel.
- The airstrike marks the first in Biden’s presidency, and while normally a routine response, it caused particular backlash against the president, who campaigned on getting out of “forever wars” in the region.
- Many felt like Biden was more concerned with bombing people in the Middle-East than he was with passing his $1.9 trillion stimulus package, which was being debated by Congress at the time.
- The targeting of an Iranian-backed militia likely didn’t help efforts to start informal talks with Iran on Sunday in an effort to reignite the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Striking Back Against Militias
The U.S. military conducted an airstrike on an Iranian-backed militia in Syria on Friday, marking it as the first such airstrike under President Joe Biden’s term.
The airstrike was conducted as retaliation after the militia launched rockets into northern Iraq; killing civilians, contractors, and injuring a U.S. service member as well as other coalition troops.
Despite airstrikes being a routine response for such situations over the last 20 years, the decision caused Biden to face intense backlash in the U.S.
For many, it set the tone and seemed to contradict some of his earlier stances when running for office. In 2019, for instance, Biden made it clear that he wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, as well as speed up the removal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. However, such airstrikes are often blamed for further entrenching the U.S. in the region.
Biden received criticism across the political spectrum, with only a few conservatives praising the airstrike as a necessary move to protect U.S. troops.
In Congress, many Democrats called the move unconstitutional, a stance the party has had since at least 2018 when Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said a similar airstrike conducted by President Trump required the approval of Congress. The Biden administration pushed back against this, sending a letter to Congress on Sunday saying the president had the power to use limited force without the body’s approval via the War Power Act.
Public Perception in a Downward Spiral
Many Americans have mocked Biden for seemingly feeling comfortable enough to use his executive power to bomb militias while also expressing apprehension toward using that same power to forgive student loans.
Others pushed back against the idea that the airstrike was a form of defensive retaliation
“This latest Biden airstrike is being spun as “defensive” and “retaliatory” despite its targeting a nation the US invaded (Syria) in response to alleged attacks on US forces in another nation the US invaded (Iraq),” wrote one user on Twitter, “You can’t invade a nation and then claim self-defense there. Ever.”
Some of the biggest criticism the president received came from those who said it seemed like his priorities were off-base. Because while the airstrike was conducted, Congress was debating his $1.9 trillion stimulus package.
Civil Rights activist Ja’Mal Green, for instance, tweeted, “We didn’t flip Georgia Blue for Biden to air strike Syria. We flipped Georgia Blue for our $2,000 Stimulus Checks.”
However, it’s worth noting that there’s not much Biden can do right now to push his stimulus package through Congress, other than attempt to convince some on-the-fence senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV). Still, the perception of confused priorities was enough to anger many.
All of this likely didn’t help when the E.U. foreign policy chief, on behalf of all the countries who signed the Iran Nuclear deal, attempted to convince Iran to engage in informal talks to try and restart the deal on Sunday. A proposal was shot down by Iran.
“Considering the recent actions and statements by the United States and three European powers, Iran does not consider this the time to hold an informal meeting with these countries,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh
Nigerian Gunmen Kidnap Over 300 Students From Boarding School
- Gunmen abducted 317 girls from a Nigerian boarding school early Friday morning, making it the second major abduction in the northwest area of the country in over a week.
- Militants loaded some girls on trucks while others were walked into the nearby Rugu forest, which covers hundreds of miles and is spread over three states.
- Authorities believe these abductions are being carried out by armed bandit groups seeking random rather than the jihadist groups in the region.
- According to terror analysts, kidnapping is quickly becoming one of the most thriving industries in Nigeria and has led to 10.5 million Nigerian children being out of school – the most of any nation.
Abductions Before Dawn
Gunmen abducted 317 students early Friday morning from the Nigerian Government Girls Secondary School in Jangebe, Zamfara state.
They entered the building shooting, although it’s clear if anyone was hurt, and forced many girls onto trucks while others into the nearby Rugu forest, which covers hundreds of square miles and crosses multiple states. Some girls escaped, but by morning it was clear to the local community that hundreds were taken.
Zamfara police and security forces, backed by Nigerian army reinforcements, said they are in pursuit of the abductors.
This abduction is the second in a little over a week in the northwest area of the country. At the Kagara Government Science College in Niger state, dozens of schoolboys were abducted on February 17.
In December, 344 boys in Katsina state were also abducted before being freed a week later. At the time, the kidnappers claimed a ransom had been paid, a common motivation for such abductions, but security forces say the children were freed after they had surrounded the group.
Was the Kidnapping for Ransom?
Many abductions have a monetary aspect, with ransoms quickly being demanded; however, it’s currently unclear if Friday’s events were carried out by local bandits looking for a payout or one of the nation’s myriad of jihadist groups that occasionally take hostages.
Most are leaning towards believing this was a kidnapping for ransom due to it quickly becoming the nation’s most thriving industry, according to Bulama Bukarti, a terror analyst and columnist of northern Nigeria’s largest paper.
Unfortunately, the constant kidnapping in less-stable parts of the country, along with economic hardships, have caused parents to pull their children out of schools. Currently, there are more than 10.5 million Nigerian children out of school, the most of any nation. The issue is so prevalent that 1 in 5 of the world’s unschooled children are in Nigeria.
The government has struggled to respond to the rise of kidnappings, with officials both on the civilian side and within the military unsure of how to proceed. On one hand, there are those who want to deal with the issue head-on and attack kidnappers, but others want to try and resolve the issue with dialogue.