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Forecast: Turkey-Syria earthquake death toll soars, Texas judge decides abortion medication case, and Colombian government negotiates with rebel group

A rigid hull inflatable boat carries a dozen sailors who are pulling the wreckage of a balloon out of the water

Welcome to Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories from the editors at Factal.

We publish our forward-looking note each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead.

More than 15,000 people were killed and tens of thousands injured in two large earthquakes near the Turkey-Syria border on Monday. In this week’s Factal Forecast podcast, Senior Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Halima Mansoor discuss major challenges to relief efforts, such as weather and war, and how the true impact of the quakes will likely reach millions.

Listen now or download on your favorite platform. 

Week of Feb. 10-17
A Look Ahead

Feb. 9 – U.S. Senate briefing on Chinese spy balloons  

Pentagon officials will brief the full Senate on Thursday about the alleged Chinese surveillance balloon that flew over parts of the continental United States last week before the Air Force shot it down off the coast of South Carolina.

What’s happened so far 
Eyewitnesses first spotted the balloon on Feb. 2 over Montana, home to one of the country’s three nuclear-missile silos. That prompted the Pentagon to issue a statement confirming the sightings and alleging the flying object had surveillance capabilities. China has taken responsibility, though it claims the balloon was launched for meteorological research and unintentionally went off-course.

The impact 
The balloon arrived during already heightened tension between the two global superpowers over conflicting geopolitical and economic interests, and prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing. American officials say the incident is not a first, with Chinese balloons detected in U.S. territory at least four times in recent years. A Navy ship is collecting debris from the downed balloon for further investigation. The Pentagon’s briefing to senators is classified.

Feb. 10 – Texas judge decides abortion pills case  

A district court in Texas may decide as soon as Friday on a case brought by a conservative legal group that seeks to limit access to the abortion medication mifepristone. 

What’s happened so far 
The FDA approved Mifepristone in 2000 as part of a two-step medical abortion procedure. This case, filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom in November 2022, seeks to effectively reverse that approval by claiming both that the original decision was flawed and that it is not legal to send abortion pills through the mail. The case will be decided by a conservative Trump-appointed judge, Matthew Kasmaryck, who has previously supported anti-LGBT and anti-immigration cases. 

The impact 
Medical abortions have become more commonplace after the 2022 Supreme Court Dobbs ruling, especially in states where access to surgical abortions is limited. If this ruling passes, it would force the FDA to pull mifepristone from sale and restart the approval process, which could take years. Two opposing cases have been filed in West Virginia and North Carolina that would seek to shore up FDA approval of mifepristone. If these cases produce a different result to the Texas suit, or appeals are filed, the Supreme Court with its conservative majority could be forced to make a final ruling.

Feb. 10 – Ambulance staff strike in England  

Thousands of ambulance workers across five services in England will walk off the job on Friday, the latest in a wave of strikes impacting emergency services and health care in the United Kingdom over compensation and staffing concerns. 

What’s happened so far 
Monday marked the first time both ambulance workers and nurses carried out a simultaneous work stoppage, the biggest in the 75-year history of the National Health Service. With the annual inflation rate at its highest in more than four decades, public sector staff have sought raises to keep pace with the cost of living, while the government says such salary hikes would only worsen inflation. 

The impact  
The strike will not impact responses to life-threatening emergency calls, but those with less urgent needs may experience significant wait times, or be asked to seek care on their own. With the government claiming pay raises are “unaffordable,” there’s little indication that union actions will stop anytime soon. 

Feb. 10 – NYC makes coronavirus vaccine optional for city employees  

New York City will end its coronavirus vaccine mandate for municipal workers on Friday. The requirement was first implemented in October 2021.

What’s happened so far 
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said that while the mandate saved lives and was “absolutely necessary to meet the moment,” more than 96 percent of city workers are fully vaccinated and more than 80 percent of New Yorkers have had at least two shots, meaning the city’s guidance can be adjusted. 

The impact 
New York’s move to make the coronavirus vaccine optional for city employees comes ahead of the Biden administration’s plan to end the three-year-old coronavirus public health emergency on May 11. And while many have applauded moves to ease restrictions, some experts worry the lifting of New York City’s mandate is politically motivated and will lead to more cases and could lead private employers to end their vaccination requirements as well.

Feb. 12 – Berlin state election re-run

A new vote to elect state and municipal officials in Germany’s capital will take place on Sunday after a court ordered 2021’s vote be repeated due to irregularities.

What’s happened so far 
Last November, the state’s Constitutional Court annulled Berlin’s state and municipal elections that took place on Sept. 26, 2021, citing irregularities during the vote, including queue delays, temporary closure of voting stations on election day and disruption caused by city’s marathon that took place on the same day. 

The impact 
The state election had resulted in a narrow victory for the Social Democrats in a coalition with the Green Party, with Franziska Giffey becoming the first female mayor to serve the city. She now faces competition from the Christian Democrats and the Green Party. While the vote is a repeat election and officials might hope for a similar result, a lot has changed since the first voting took place, including the war in Ukraine and inflation. Observers carried out a three-day visit but declined to attend the elections. Meanwhile, several attempts have been made to try to postpone the repeat vote, with a cross-party coalition and dozens of Berlin politicians and civilians trying to overturn the decision.

Feb. 12 – Super Bowl

The Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs will face off in the National Football League’s Super Bowl on Sunday in Arizona.

What’s happened so far 
Playing in their first Super Bowl since defeating the New England Patriots in February 2018, the Eagles will face the Chiefs, who are playing in their third Super Bowl in four seasons. The game, which will take place outside of Phoenix at State Farm Stadium, will feature a halftime performance headlined by Rihanna.

The impact 
While the game represents a potentially legacy-solidifying moment for the Chiefs’ soon-to-be two-time MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, there are additional impacts off the field. Namely, if the Eagles were to win, Philadelphia fans are expected to partake in widespread unrest like they did back in 2018 following the team’s Super Bowl victory.

Feb. 12 – Cyprus election run-off 

The presidential election in Cyprus will head to a second round Sunday after former Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides and independent candidate Andreas Mavroyiannis failed to secure the majority of votes last week.

What’s happened so far 
According to exit polls, Christodoulides secured approximately 32 percent of the votes, while diplomat Mavroyiannis received 29.6 percent. Averof Neophytou, head of the right-wing ruling Democratic Rally party, came in third with 26 percent, which came as a surprise as many expected Neophytou to be one of the top two favorite candidates to progress.

The impact 
These elections, which had a record of 14 candidates running for president in the first round, are seen by some as the most significant poll since the country’s independence more than 60 years ago. Several crucial issues are dividing the voters, including the cost of living crisis, corruption and migration. The country’s ethnic division between Greek Cypriots and those in the Turkish-controlled northern part of the island also remains on the agenda. Christodoulides, who is backed by centrist parties that are keen to restart reunification talks, refused to rule out future coalitions with any party including the ultranationalist Elam.

Feb. 13 – Second round of Colombian government-ELN negotiations  

Representatives of the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) will again sit at the negotiation table in Mexico on Monday

What’s happened so far 
The meeting follows an initial round of peace talks held in Caracas, Venezuela, last December. Negotiations will resume with Spain as a newly added supporting country. Brazil will also join the guarantors list along with Chile, Mexico, Norway and Venezuela. The meeting follows a lapse of public tensions between the ELN and the government after President Gustavo Petro’s administration unilaterally announced a bilateral ceasefire agreement, which was later denied by the guerrilla group.

The impact 
The agenda for the meeting is expected to cover social participation in peacebuilding, the conditions for a bilateral ceasefire, forced disappearances during the conflict and failures and achievements in previous negotiations. ELN top commander Antonio García has made claims that the group is not looking for a transition into politics as part of the peace process and said a change in the Colombian government’s military doctrine is essential to achieve agreements.

Feb. 15 – Nikki Haley announces presidential run 

On Wednesday, Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor, will formally launch her bid to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. 

What’s happened so far 
Haley was elected as the country’s first female Asian-American governor in South Carolina in 2010. She won reelection in 2014 before stepping down to join the Trump administration as ambassador to the U.N. in 2017. During her second term as governor, Haley gained a national profile after giving the Republican response to former President Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union. Throughout her two-year tenure as U.N. ambassador, Haley distinguished herself from Trump on several occasions, including coming out against the ban on immigration from majority Muslim countries in 2017. 

The impact 
Recent primary polling from Club For Growth indicates that while Haley garners 5 percent of the vote, she still is far behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are both polling in the mid-30’s. In fact, Trump’s rhetoric has been surprisingly tame since the news of Haley’s run became public, perhaps indicating that he does not see her as a serious threat. Haley is viewed as a more moderate candidate than the two frontrunners, but the 51-year-old is most likely angling for a vice presidential nomination. 

Feb. 15 – China’s Sichuan province lifts restrictions on childbirth 

Sichuan, one of China’s largest provinces, will no longer limit how many childbirths a person can register or restrict who can register new births starting Wednesday.

What’s happened so far 
Sichuan’s new policy is only the latest in a gradual easing on childbirth restrictions in China since 2016, when the national government replaced its infamous one-child policy with a two-child limit. After seeing little success, Beijing went on to lift the cap to three children in 2021, but birthrates have continued to decline, with China reporting its first population fall in decades just last month. The country’s shrinking, aging population is an increasingly urgent challenge for China’s policymakers, with potentially dire consequences.

The impact 
Though this new policy affects Sichuan’s population of some 83 million people, it is not likely to make an immediate impact on China’s demographic crisis. High cost of living, lack of employment and changing social values among younger people in China remain major factors inhibiting population growth. Sichuan’s reforms, however, will likely improve the lives of unmarried parents and children born out of wedlock in the province, who will now be able to access vital public services previously barred to them. 

What Else Matters

Several people in safety gear are assessing the pile from a collapsed building. The pile looks to be about 60 feet tall and about 100 feet wide when compared to the lone person standing on it.
A search and rescue team from Bulgaria works on the ground in Adana, Turkey, on Feb. 8 following the massive earthquake. (Photo: Bulgarian Civil Protection)

Earthquakes along Turkey-Syria border

More than 15,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook the Turkish Mediterranean and southeastern region early Monday, near the Syrian border. A shallower earthquake of magnitude 7.5 struck the region nine hours later. The second temblor and constant aftershocks caused more buildings to collapse even as residents and emergency services were carrying out search and rescue operations. More than 34,000 people have sustained injuries in Turkey alone.

Watch for: The World Health Organization said 23 million people may have been affected by Monday’s earthquakes and it expects a “serious increase” in the number of deaths due to the extent of devastation in both countries. As rescue efforts continue for thousands of people believed to be still under the rubble in Syria and Turkey, emergency services say trapped survivors are at risk of hypothermia as the region registers freezing temperatures. Entire rebel-held neighborhoods of northwestern Syria that face the daily threat of war are now tackling an even greater emergency amid economic collapse, lack of international aid and fragile infrastructure due to nearly 12 years of war.

Chile wildfires

As Chile’s wildfire season continues, the situation across the country’s Ñuble, Araucanía, Maule and Biobío regions has deteriorated significantly in the last week. At least 26 people have been killed and more than 1,100 buildings consumed by the flames, with many more either being evacuated or under imminent threat. There are currently more than 200 wildfires that remain active, with many of them under government-issued red alerts. Countries across South and Central America have sent numerous emergency crews in support. Chilean President Gabriel Boric issued states of catastrophe for the Ñuble, Araucanía and Biobío regions over the weekend and the military has been deployed. 

Watch for: Not only is the number of active wildfires reaching a record high, but the death, injury and damage tolls are the worst the country has seen in over a decade. Authorities will continue issuing red alerts, evacuation orders and emergency deployments and will arrest those suspected in starting the fires as incidents continue to pop up near communes and inhabited areas. But with temperatures expected to drop later this week, paired alongside continuous consolidated efforts from ground and aerial forces, the country may see some respite from the flames. Nevertheless, Chile remains vigilant of new wildfires that may cause further damage in the country’s south-central areas. 

Extended Outlook

What’s on our radar in the coming weeks…

Feb. 10-17

Feb. 10

  • New York Fashion Week begins
  • New Bank of Japan governor expected
  • Brazilian president visits White House
  • Ambulance staff strike in England
  • Texas judge makes decision in case that could ban abortion pills nationwide
  • NYC makes coronavirus vaccine optional for city employees

Feb. 12

  • Super Bowl LVII
  •  Berlin state election rerun

Feb. 13

  • Human Rights Council meeting
  • Second round of ELN negotiations in Mexico

Feb. 14

  •  German president visits Cambodia

Feb. 15

  • US appeals court weighs NCAA case over pay for athletes
  • EU gas price cap can be triggered

Feb. 16

  • Elections in Tripura, India
  • Berlin International Film Festival begins

Feb. 17

  • Libya’s Arab Spring revolution anniversary

Feb. 18-24 

Feb. 18

  • Nigeria general election
  • Crypto exchange Coinbase halts Japan operations

Feb. 19

  • British Academy Film Awards

Feb. 20

  • Australia to expand rollout of fifth coronavirus vaccine shot

Feb. 21

  • EU energy ministers meet in Stockholm
  • Mardi Gras

Feb. 24

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will visit New York to speak at UN General Assembly

Feb. 25-March 3

Feb. 25 

  • Nigerian House of Representatives election

Feb. 27

  • Human Rights Council meeting

March 1

  • G20 foreign ministers meeting in New Delhi
  • EU defense ministers meet in Stockholm

March 4-10 

March 5

  • Estonian Parliament election

March 5

  • Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia Election

March 8

  • Portuguese doctors’ strike

March 10

  • British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will visit France for British-French summit

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