The COVID-19 crisis has struck a divided and fragile world, and exacerbated divisions
The COVID-19 crisis comes in the midst of great power rivalry between China and the US. Strangely, the crisis has highlighted deep shortcomings in both these superpowers.
The exact cause of the virus is yet to be conclusively ascertained. But its spread is most certainly the product of poor governance and management. The full impact of the virus in China is still unclear and most analysts doubt the veracity of Chinese statistics.
For its part, the US continues to struggle controlling the pandemic because of what has been a botched response at best. It now has the world’s highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. The American catastrophe once again puts the spotlight on the country’s erratic and sluggish leadership, the inability to forge a national response as states squabble with Washington, and the gross deficiencies in the country’s public health system.
Noteworthy is the fact that the US has the highest spending on health of all advanced countries (18% of GDP versus 10.9% in the case of Japan), and yet it has the lowest life expectancy of all advanced countries (78.6 years compared with Japan’s 84.2 years). Access to healthcare is just one of the many inequalities from which the US suffers.
International bickering instead of cooperation
As China and the US compete for global primacy, they are also doing an appalling job in their international relations. China’s management of COVID-19 was mired with news of a domestic cover-up and speculations of manipulating the WHO, and has progressed to “wolf-warrior diplomacy” whereby Chinese diplomats are increasingly adopting an assertive approach to any foreign country that questions its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country did attempt soft power, but China’s image was tarnished further when several countries returned masks and testing kits sent by China as they were of dubious quality.
In sharp contrast to President George W. Bush’s initiative in 2008 to create a G20 leaders’ meeting to manage the Global Financial Crisis, President Trump has shown no interest in working with the international community to tackle a virus that knows no borders. International meetings, organised at the behest of other countries, have achieved very little, and foundered on US insistence that COVID-19 be called the “Wuhan virus” in official communiques. China has both not accepted and has criticised such naming and shaming.
Overall, the COVID-19 crisis has led to the deterioration in already fragile US-China relations. The inability of these two countries to cooperate to save lives leaves the world in a parlous state.
For its part, the European Union (EU) has been widely criticised for its lack of solidarity in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. This political and economic union has shown insufficient sympathy for badly affected countries like Italy and Spain, and there has been little coordination by member countries to respond to the crisis. Somewhat belatedly, France and Germany are reportedly now proposing a €500 billion European recovery fund to be distributed to EU countries worst affected by COVID-19.
Indeed, one of the most defining features of the COVID-19 crisis has been the acceleration of nationalist trends that have been evident for some years now. For example, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s government banned most exports of protective medical equipment, resulting in a diplomatic spat with neighbours Austria and Switzerland. Separately, it is alleged that President Trump attempted to persuade CureVac—which is developing a possible vaccine for the virus—to move its research work from Germany to the US, by offering the company a large sum of money.
And as scientists in many countries are racing to create a COVID-19 vaccine, we could see ‘vaccine nationalism’. In other words, it is entirely possible that political leaders strive to make sure their electorates receive the vaccine before others.
Spotlight on the WHO
The WHO has come in for sharp criticism as well, in contrast to the time it received plaudits for its good work on other pandemics like Ebola, and also in the Pacific. Like all international organisations, it is vulnerable to pressure from member countries. But in a first, it is being widely speculated that the WHO has been unacceptably influenced by China.
Through January and most of February, the WHO wasted precious time as it parroted lines from Beijing. Indeed, the Australian government felt so moved to act that on 1 February, it defied WHO advice and implemented a ban on travellers from China. That however, curiously earned the ire of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director-General, who criticised Australia for these travel restrictions.
For a few weeks now, Australia has been campaigning for an independent international enquiry into the origins and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the role of the WHO. Not surprisingly, this provoked the ire of the Chinese government, which had initially indicated that it could lead to Chinese trade sanctions against Australia. Such sanctions have now been announced, although the ostensible justification is not related to the call for an enquiry.
Building on the growing support for such an enquiry, the recent World Health Assembly of the WHO has agreed to an EU draft motion for an independent review committee within the WHO. More than 100 countries, including China, the US and Australia, agreed to this proposed review, though China has demanded the inquiry be delayed until after the pandemic has peaked.
The Australian government now feels vindicated in its call for a review, even though the motion is somewhat watered down from Australia’s initial proposal. Although Chinese President Xi has agreed to the review, the fire has not gone from the Australia-China relationship, as the Chinese embassy in Canberra announced that “to claim the WHA’s resolution a vindication of Australia’s call is nothing but a joke.”
But perhaps the most egregious of the WHO’s anomalies is the exclusion of Taiwan from the organisation, because of Chinese political pressure. This has now become a greatly discussed topic since Taiwan became one of the world’s first successful managers of the COVID-19 crisis.
Not the right kind of pressure
The US provoked a storm of criticism when it first announced that its funding for the WHO would be on hold for 60 to 90 days pending a review of the WHO’s warnings about the coronavirus and China. Most recently, however, President Trump severed all ties with the WHO, confirming that the US would withdraw all funding to the organisation.
While President Trump has every reason to question the WHO, his venom towards the organisation is widely being seen as a way to divert attention from his own incompetence.
The reality is that the WHO, notwithstanding its shortcomings, is a very necessary international organisation, and has done much good work in the past. If anything, it needs to be strengthened, both now and going forward. The confirmed departure of the US from the WHO leaves a big void that China can fill, leaving global health subject to the whims of the Chinese Communist Party.
Competent governance is key
The COVID-19 crisis has revived debates about the benefits of authoritarian governance versus democracy. And nowhere is this more relevant than in the case of China. It is highly unlikely that China’s initial cover-up would have been possible in a democracy with freedom of the press and speech, nor would there be deep scepticism about China’s COVID-19 statistics. However, on the flipside, China’s apparently successful lockdown in Wuhan was also facilitated by authoritarian governance.
The real lesson is that competent governance, be it authoritarian or democratic, is the key to managing crises like COVID-19 or indeed any other crisis. In Asia, success stories have included soft authoritarian countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, along with vibrant democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, countries like the US and the UK, with years of right wing policies, have debilitated public health systems, leaving their populations vulnerable to any health crisis. Surely one of the most astonishing sights in recent times was Prime Minister Johnson expressing his gratitude to the National Health Service (NHS) for saving his life. We need to look at the irony of the politics here – the NHS is more often than not a subject of scorn by Tory politicians like Prime Minister Johnson.
But there is hope
Effectively tackling the COVID-19 pandemic requires countries working together constructively with openness and transparency. Unfortunately, this has not been happening.
On the contrary, the COVID-19 crisis is leading to an acceleration of unfortunate recent trends in international relations, such as the growing contest for global power between China and the US, a retreat of the US from international leadership, major efforts by China to change the international order to fit its interests, and a further rise of nationalism in many countries.
The liberal international order that underpinned over seventy years of economic development is unravelling. Today, international relations may be in their worst shape since at least the Cold War.
In a world where everything seems politicised and polarised, perhaps one of the most reassuring sights has been the prominent role given to scientists and medical professionals in government policymaking in some countries such as Australia, South Korea and Taiwan. There have also been many reports of excellent cooperation between scientists and medical professionals from China and the US. If governments across the world can pick these examples and reform their stand on international cooperation – there is still reason for optimism.
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).