Lack of trust, leadership impedes pandemic fight

by Anis Chowdhury | Published: 00:00, Apr 01,2020


US president Donald Trump takes questions from reporters during a coronavirus task force press briefing in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 30. — Agence France-Presse/Mandel Ngan

AS THE epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic shifts from China to the developed world, rich countries are acting in an extreme nationalistic way not only by closing their borders, but also banning exports of vital medical supplies. President Trump went further by seeking to have exclusive rights to a future coronavirus vaccine for the United States alone.

These moves, seen as protecting their own people, are politically very attractive; Trump’s approval ratings hit all-time high. However, such moves ostensibly in ‘national interest’ can be self-defeating in the long run.

As the fight against the global pandemic falters in the poorer parts of the world due to shortages of vital resources, travel bans or other restrictions will not be able to shield nations. Viruses know no borders. It is in the rich world’s self-interest to help poor countries.


‘Sicken thy neighbour’

FOLLOWING France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland wanted to ban the export of certain types of protective gear which angered fellow members of the European Union. This prompted Stella Kyriakides, the EU health commissioner, to emphasise ‘Solidarity is key’. 

After an extraordinary two-week of infighting among European countries, the EU announced emergency export restrictions on medical supplies needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic to countries outside the European single market. The consequences of the EU’s export restrictions could be devastating for developing countries.

This overzealous inward-looking EU response is also likely to harm EU itself. It can set off a spiral of export restrictions by non-EU countries. The EU imports $17.6 billion of the same medical products on which it imposed export controls. Additionally, it can hamper its own production as European supply chains for medical equipment, such as ventilation machines produced in Germany and Switzerland, must use parts that often cross external EU borders, sometimes more than once.

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, appealed EU governments to reconsider the steps they have taken to close borders and impose export restrictions that are inhibiting the flow of supplies and equipment, including personal protective equipment for frontline health workers. He also urged them to allow WHO experts to travel to, from and within countries freely to provide support.

Unfortunately, some major developing countries are following Europe’s bad examples. India and China, have imposed restrictions on medical gears exports. Although India reversed some of its export restrictions on masks, allowing some to be exported to China, it banned export of 26 pharmaceutical ingredients and some of the products made with them, such as paracetamol.

Meanwhile, export bans widen to non-medical, but essential products. For example, Kazakhstan banned exports of key food products since March 22.


Third world solidarity

THERE are, however, some very laudable initiatives by developing countries. India proposed an emergency South Asian regional fund to fight the coronavirus outbreak and offered US$10 million to get it started. India also offered rapid response teams and other expertise to deal with the crisis in the region.

China shared its findings about sequence of the genetic material of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in early January. This allowed research groups around the world to grow the live virus and study how it invades human cells and makes people sick.

China has also announced at the recent virtual G20 emergency meeting that it will increase its supply of active pharmaceutical ingredients, daily necessities, and anti-epidemic (goods) and other supplies to the international market.

Cuba, which has a long tradition of sending its medical brigades to scores of developing countries, joined China to send its doctors and nurses to Italy and Spain, in ‘humanitarian solidarity’ even when under US-led sanctions for more than half a century.

Cuba has also mobilised its medical corps to distribute, Interferon Alpha-2B Recombinant (IFNrec), it developed and used to arrest a deadly outbreak of the dengue virus in 1981, despite the US blockade, obstructing access to technologies, equipment, materials, finance, and even knowledge exchange. Dubbed by the Newsweek as a wonder drug, IFNrec is proven effective against similar viruses, but still awaiting approval to treat coronavirus.


Crisis of trust

AS THE Time magazine emphasised, today’s crisis is not just of health and economy, it is also of trust — between humans, between countries, between citizens and governments — and in science. Unfortunately, trust has been deliberately undermined by irresponsible politicians during the past years.

No where the trust deficit is starker than between two major countries — China and the United States. The US continues to blame China for the COVID-19 outbreak. Trump calls it a ‘Chinese virus’.  His secretary of state Pompeo unsuccessfully tried to convince the G7 foreign ministers to label it ‘Wuhan virus’, thus failing to produce a joint statement.

Finding treatments and vaccines require knowledge and skill sharing at extra-ordinary levels among scientists and research organisations across the globe. This cannot happen without trust and solidarity. Global solidarity is also critical for marshalling resources and designing an effective response to the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.

But trust and solidarity cannot be rebuilt when western media continues to have ideological aversion against China or Cuba. The CNBC (March 26, 2020) smells China’s commercial motive in its announcement at the recent G20 emergency virtual meeting to increase the supply of medical gears and other necessities in the international market. Reuter (March 27) describes China’s offer of help to Latin American countries as ‘medical diplomacy’. The Sydney Morning Herald (March 29) spins China’s attempts to highlight what worked as its ‘propaganda playbook’.


Lack of leadership

TACKLING a global emergency requires global approach and global leadership as demonstrated during the 2008–2009 global financial crises. It is more critical when the crisis is multi-faceted — health, economic and social.

Unfortunately, the current response is fractured and global leadership seems to have gone into quarantine at the time of its greatest need.

Echoing the UN secretary general, a number of former leaders, such as Britain’s Gordon Brown and Australia’s Kevin Rudd, have called for co-ordinated global actions to beat the coronavirus pandemic, to put the global economy back on track and to support vulnerable countries and people. The chiefs of the OECD and the IMF also underscored the urgent need for global solidarity.

But global solidarity cannot happen when international politics prevents reaching out to the most vulnerable under unilateral sanctions. It is really sad that the United States refuses to lift sanctions against Iran despite growing calls, including from the United Kingdom (The Guardian, March 19, 2020).

Reflecting on the current leaderless world, Yuval Noah Harari, historian, philosopher and the author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, has written, ‘Xenophobia, isolationism and distrust now characterise most of the international system. Without trust and global solidarity we will not be able to stop the coronavirus epidemic, and we are likely to see more such epidemics in future. But every crisis is also an opportunity. Hopefully, the current epidemic will help humankind realise the acute danger posed by global disunity’ (Time, March 15, 2020).


No substitute for political activism

BUT hope may not be enough. The citizens of the world need to demand that the world after COVID-19 must be happier, more secure, equitable, inclusive and sustainable. People have to act in political collectives to enact change: they have to join trade unions, clubs, political parties, and in mass protests.


Anis Chowdhury, adjunct professor, the University of Western Sydney and the University of New South Wales (Australia), held senior United Nations positions during 2008-2015 in New York and Bangkok.

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