Weekend edition—Debt relief, mutating virus, mask debate 

Good morning, Quartz readers!

Uncertainty around the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is still in its early days, but already attention is turning to the piles of debt the world’s poorest countries have amassed over the past decade.

Since the end of the financial crisis, a low-interest environment meant many low- and middle-income countries were able to stack up debt without much concern for repayments. That made a lot of sense early on for developing nations keen to address their infrastructure deficit. But as international investors came looking for better returns from emerging markets, eurobonds and commodity-linked loans started piling on. On top of that were the Chinese loans, estimated to be more than $140 billion in Africa alone—and a cause for some consternation because of their reported opaqueness.

Africa’s total external debt is $700 billion and its debt service this year alone is $44 billion, so the fear is some of the world’s most under-resourced health systems would suffer with debt repayments being prioritized in the middle of a global pandemic. The World Bank and IMF were early to call for some form of debt relief, perhaps forbearance.

The IMF on Monday approved $500 million in immediate debt service relief to 25 low-income countries, the majority in Africa, but also Afghanistan, Haiti, and a few others. Former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has been appointed as an African Union special envoy to the G20, says much more is needed, including for some middle-income countries. The latest calls are for all debt service to be stopped for this year for low-income nations.

Africa has been home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies for the past decade, but a global recession will have a disproportionately harsh impact on many countries and hundreds of millions of people. The spread of Covid-19 might end up being relatively limited—it’s still at just under 19,000 reported cases in a continent of 1.3 billion people—but its economic aftermath will be long-lasting. Relieving debt service will play an important role in preventing even worse outcomes. Yinka Adegoke, Africa editor

Are you stressing coronavirus? We’ve got an email for that. Sign up for a look at how an epidemic affects the health of the global economy.


New levels of neighborliness. Modern life hadn’t made much room for incorporating the strangers around us into our lives. Covid-19 seems to be changing that for the better, inspiring people to check in on others, in responsibly distant ways. But what will we do with these newfound connections once the crisis recedes? Jenny Anderson reminds us how much is at stake for our communities and ourselves. Heather Landy, executive editor

Trump defunds WHO? It might seem an odd time to cancel funding for an organization tasked with coordinating global health emergencies, but that’s exactly what Donald Trump said he’d do this week. While this is a potential disaster for the worldwide response to Covid-19, particularly in poor countries, Annabelle Timsit and Amanda Shendruk found that US funding for the WHO also went toward fighting other health crises, like polio, tuberculosis, and HIV. Pete Gelling, geopolitics editor

Why does India have so few Covid-19 deaths? This timely piece investigates four possible explanations. From widespread BCG vaccination (for tuberculosis) to an early and strict lockdown, the writers examine all the possible reasons behind the nation’s light exposure and arrive at an ominous conclusion: There is no way that India, with its 1.3 billion people, will escape the pandemic unscathed. Diksha Madhok, director and editor of Quartz platform India

We broke the unemployment rate. Unemployment statistics, as we usually talk about them, are premised on out-of-work people actively trying to get a new job. As Dan Kopf explains, the newly non-working are not doing that. Which means that one of the most recognizable and cited economic statistics is now all but meaningless. David Yanofsky, things editor

How designers convey social-distancing mandates. Tell Londoners to keep one alligator’s length between each other and you’ll get raised eyebrows. But in Florida, a county government felt the reptile was a perfect way to visually convey the six-feet-apart guideline. Anne Quito shows how authorities around the world are designing physical-distancing graphic cues differently, from simple banners in Brooklyn to chalk graffiti in Chennai, India. Signs in elevators are proving a particular challenge. —Steve Mollman, weekend editor 


How can we plan for the future when everything seems so uncertain? Management consultant and author Mark Johnson spoke with executive editor Heather Landy about how to create a new vision for the future, even in the midst of unprecedented current events.


On predicting the pandemic… Even the best forecasters get things wrong most of the time. But that doesn’t explain why so many of us missed the severity of the coronavirus as it spread from China. In an essay on probabilistic reasoning, blogger Scott Alexander examines how most of us are bad at accounting for the consequences of low-probability but potentially disastrous events. Instead, we wait for incontrovertible proof. For some things, like a pandemic, that’s too late. Michael J. Coren, climate reporter

…and asking the wrong questions about its end. If you’re like me, you’ve spent the past five weeks wondering when you can return to normal life. The Atlantic’s Ed Yong explains how the next few months could unfold, and why the right question to be asking isn’t “When will things go back to normal?” but rather “How can we make sure the world we come back to is a fairer and more humane one?” Annabelle Timsit, geopolitics reporter

Why a Covid-19 vaccine is such a tricky problem. With dozens of prospective vaccines in development, it feels like only a matter of time before someone strikes gold. A gorgeously illustrated New York Times story explains why that may not be the case, and how the novel coronavirus may mutate to make a vaccine less successful over time. It’s the first article that made me understand how such vaccines work, and the scale of what scientists are tackling. Natasha Frost, travel and lifestyle reporter

Can a mask really protect you? Official guidance on whether healthy people should wear face coverings in public to ward off coronavirus has shifted. First they were deemed unhelpful, but experts and leaders now insist on their use. In the Daily Beast, Katie MacBride provides some welcome clarity with the science of airborne transmission. For me, it affirms the choice to maintain physical distancing but not don a cloth while out running. Holly Ojalvo, talent lab editor

There’s a new king of pop. Releasing new music is one of the few businesses that hasn’t been turned upside down by Covid-19. So I’ll be looking forward to tracking the moves on Bloomberg’s new Pop Star Power Rankings when it updates each month. The list takes into account six criteria: ticket sales, concert grosses, album sales, Spotify streams, Instagram engagement, and YouTube views. Who’s on top in April? Puerto Rico’s own Bad Bunny. Max Lockie, deputy news editor

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, Bad Bunny tracks, and social-distancing signage to hi@qz.com. Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was brought to you by Steve Mollman and Kira Bindrim.