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HomePolitics newsGlavin: The tragedy and farce of 2023's global challenges

Glavin: The tragedy and farce of 2023’s global challenges

Russia’s disastrous war; the threat of Iranian theocrats and Taliban tyrants; China’s COVID chaos: the world needs some luck this coming year.

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If you want to get a bead on the forces and events that should be expected to give form and shape to the world in 2023, it would be a safe bet to take your cue from Antonio in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Whereof what’s past is prologue.” If you prefer, you can dust off Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte for the observation that the thing about the scourges of history is that they appear twice, “first as tragedy, then as farce.”

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Both notions fit pretty well for what is being unleashed upon the world at the moment from China and from Russia and from that allied arc of theocratic fascism that persists as a lash upon the backs of millions of people, mostly women, from Tehran to Kabul. We’ll start off with that last horror show. It can be understood just as well by reversing Marx’s dictum.

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There were all those farcical American excuses for playing along with the Khomeinists in the hopes that “reformists” among the Iranian regime’s elites would be pleased to exchange a promise not to build a nuclear bomb for sanctions relief. All that resulted was the immolation of Syria, and Tehran’s use of its place at the nuclear talks table as a blackmail card against the United States and Europe at every twist and turn in the misfortunes of the Greater Middle East. It’s hard to imagine that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will surrender to the immense courage of the Iranian people, still thronging in the streets after all these weeks. He’s more likely to turn the entire country into an abattoir.

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Every bit as farcical were the pretexts the American Democrats and Republicans alike constructed for themselves to justify NATO’s abandonment of the Afghan people to what was ludicrously described as a “moderate” version of the Taliban, in a “forever war” that Afghans were wrongly and obscenely accused of being uninterested in fighting.

The tragedy that came of those lies is not only the reduction of Afghan women to the state of slavery they endured during the Taliban’s last reign of terror in the 1990s, a looming famine and a humanitarian crisis rivalling that of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The eviction of Afghan women from universities this past month is just the half of it. It’s what’s going to become of the boys that should worry you just as much.

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The new Taliban curriculum is a blueprint for turning Afghanistan’s entire education system into a giant madrassa for global jihad and terror. Nobody expects the western foreign-policy establishment to be possessed of clairvoyance. But this was foreseen by anyone not otherwise preoccupied with justifying the Trump administration’s venal capitulation to Pakistan’s throat-slitting proxies in Afghanistan, or preoccupied with inventing excuses for the Biden administration’s implementation of Trump’s “policy” in the region.

Burqa-clad women walk through a street in Kabul, Afghanistan on Dec. 28, 2022.
Burqa-clad women walk through a street in Kabul, Afghanistan on Dec. 28, 2022. Photo by AFP /Getty Images

You shouldn’t need a crystal ball to reasonably conclude what’s in store for Russia, either. The coming year will bring surprises with it. It shouldn’t be expected that Vladimir Putin and his coterie of generals and oligarchs will face justice for the genocidal crimes they’ve been getting away with from the dawn of this century in emulation of the bloodiest excesses of the last century. The best-case scenario is that Ukraine will fight on, the NATO capitals will somehow resist the urge to invent excuses for walking away from the fight, and Putin’s dreary empire, the farce derived from the tragedy of Russian barbarism going back beyond the Soviets to the time of the tsars, will one day be brought to its knees.

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The tragedy behind what’s happening in China right now was the sequence of events at the place of origin and the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic three years ago.

Referring to a deadly flu-like virus that had been already making the rounds for several weeks in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Ma Xiaowei, the head of the Chinese National Health Commission, was quoted verbatim in an internal Jan. 14, 2020 memo obtained by the Associated Press: “The epidemic situation is still severe and complex, the most severe challenge since SARS in 2003, and is likely to develop into a major public health event.”

That same day, the World Health Organization issued a bulletin parroting the lie Beijing was telling the world: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus.” Tens of thousands of travellers were allowed to leave China on international flights and five million people were allowed to leave Wuhan before the prefecture was finally locked down on Jan. 23.

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Winning praise in Beijing’s vast propaganda machinery, the Trudeau government waited until 80 other countries had severely restricted flights originating in China before foreign arrivals at Canada’s airports were finally shut down, almost entirely, on March 16, 2020.

That’s the prologue. Here’s where we’re at now.

After mass protests against the state’s cruel and ineffective system of lockdowns, its ubiquitous surveillance and checkpoints and hastily constructed quarantine camps, Beijing announced it would generously relax its failed “Zero-COVID” strategy three weeks ago. On Christmas Day, after official counts claimed only a handful of deaths in Beijing while morgues and crematoria were stacked with corpses, Beijing announced it would stop publishing daily COVID-19 case numbers entirely. Nobody believed them anyway, not even the WHO.

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During the first three weeks of this month, China’s National Health Commission had publicly reported 62,592 new symptomatic COVID cases. According to Bloomberg News and the Financial Times, a deputy director of China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention disclosed in an internal health briefing on Dec. 23 that the true number was closer to 250 million new infections during those same three weeks. Some epidemiologists say between 1.3 million and 2.1 million Chinese people will likely die from the virus in the coming weeks and months.

Beijing’s COVID containment strategy was crippled by a catastrophic failure to vaccinate the elderly and by leader Xi Jinping’s refusal to accept “western” mRNA vaccines. It’s been variously estimated that China’s current surge of infections involves about one million cases every day, and 5,000 deaths daily.

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On Boxing Day, Beijing announced that it was dropping COVID-related restrictions at China’s airports and would start issuing passports again on Jan. 8 to all Chinese citizens wishing to travel abroad. It’s not like all Chinese citizens have been prevented from leaving the country; nearly 10,000 Chinese citizens obtained permanent-resident status in Canada during the third quarter of this year. But now, Japan and the United States are already scrambling to figure out whether to revisit their COVID-related restrictions on international travel, owing to the Chinese disaster. No word out of Canada’s federal government yet, beyond Health Canada’s assurance that it’s monitoring the situation.

And you never know. Because of relatively high vaccination rates and a kind of “herd immunity” that never took hold in China, western countries might get lucky this time around.

That’s the thing about trying to predict what’s coming next. You should never discount the crucial historical role played by good old dumb luck.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.

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