I was recently walking along East 29th Street in Manhattan, after visiting a friend at Bellevue Hospital, when I was roused from my thoughts by a middle-aged white male screaming at an old Chinese man, “Get the fuck out of my country, you piece of Chinese shit!” The old man was stunned. So was I, before I bellowed back (deploying the full range of my native Australian vocabulary), “Fuck off and leave him alone, you white racist piece of shit!”
The pedestrian traffic stopped. A young white guy with dark hair came storming toward me. As a non-pugilist by instinct and training, I braced for what was coming. He stopped just short of me and said, “Thank you for standing up for him. That’s why I fought in Iraq; so that people like him could be free.”
Leaving aside the troubled history of the Iraq War, COVID-19 is a stark reminder that global pandemics, like climate change, do not respect political borders. China’s experience with the virus in January and February is likely to be repeated in much of the rest of the world in March and April. There will be variations on the numbers of infections, depending on imponderable factors such as the temperature, the relative robustness of public-health testing and treatment systems, and differing levels of financial and economic resilience. We should be preparing intelligently for these contingencies, not succumbing to irrational panic – let alone pandering to racist stereotypes.
This virus reminds us afresh that no person or country is an island unto itself. Yet political leaders have often failed to rein in the thinly veiled racism inherent in some of the popular response to the outbreak so far. In buses, trains, and on streets around the world, Asians, particularly Chinese, have been subjected to the kind of abuse I witnessed. Now that the virus has struck Italy, are Italians next?
It has been stunning to witness the general absence of solidarity, empathy, and compassion for the Chinese people, particularly those in Wuhan, who have stoically endured a living hell. How would (or will) Manhattan, London, Sydney, Toronto, Berlin, Paris, or Delhi fare under the same circumstances? Indifference to the suffering of others gets us absolutely nowhere in marshalling an effective global response to what is demonstrably a global crisis.
The United States could easily have reached out to the Chinese leadership to establish a top-level joint coronavirus taskforce early on, underpinned with a very public expression of human solidarity above politics. Instead, the administration has issued statements attacking China’s authoritarian political system, and urging American investors and supply chain managers to take refuge in the US. Yes, over the last three years the US and China have been on a strategic collision course, and normal political hostilities will be resumed once the immediate crisis is over. But right now, belligerence is not a policy. It’s just an attitude, and it doesn’t help fix the problem.
On a more positive note, institutional and professional collaboration is underway beneath the surface. Whatever failings the World Health Organization may have, it is the formal instrument of global governance on pandemics. Those who have attacked WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus over his organization’s effectiveness should look long at the international statutes that determine its powers. The WHO is limited to providing international advisory notices on the movement of the virus, clinical and technical advice to national governments on how to deal with it, and emergency triage in places where no health infrastructure exists. That last duty may become necessary if the virus reaches the poorest parts of the world, as with the 2013-16 Ebola crisis in West Africa.
The WHO is also constrained by collapsing funding levels. In its attack on “globalism,” the political right sees defunding United Nations humanitarian institutions as a badge of honor, a potent symbol of smashing the “lefties.” But when essential institutions are defunded, their effectiveness is undermined. Just ask the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and the UN Refugee Agency, all of which are scrambling to make ends meet. In the WHO’s case, it’s become reliant on contributions from philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and voluntary pledges. Meanwhile, in the midst of the current crisis, the Trump administration has proposed slashing the US government’s core contribution to the WHO from $123 million now to just $58 million next year.
In addition to the WHO, we must be thankful for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its network of sister institutions around the world (including in China). Health professionals in these organizations have been collaborating to analyze the virus, anticipate possible mutations, and develop a vaccine – all despite the toxic political environment. We also should be thankful for the international (including American) medical, pharmaceutical, and other companies that have been quietly sourcing masks, gloves, gowns, ventilators and other critical supplies for China.
Despite these efforts, at present there is a palpable crisis of confidence around the world, in part because of a loss of confidence in national and global leadership. This is reflected in public panic and financial markets’ heightened volatility. Why doesn’t the US convene an emergency G20 meeting of health and finance ministers and heads of government? Such a gathering wouldn’t have to be held in person; it could be conducted virtually, in partnership with the UN and the WHO.
This could rapidly produce an agreed policy framework – and serious financial commitments – for responding to the unfolding pandemic. Representing 20 of the world’s largest economies (and many of the countries with more than 100 COVID-19 cases), the G20 is also best positioned to devise a financial and economic strategy for preventing global recession.
Global confidence will recover only when both the public and markets see that governments collectively have stepped into the breach. That is what happened in April 2009, when the London G20 summit arrested the panic from the 2008 financial crisis, established a basis for coordination, and created a policy and fiscal framework for eventual recovery. Without multilateral efforts, individual countries will simply continue to forge their own paths, thereby prolonging the recovery.
In times of international crisis, playing the nationalist card is the easiest and crudest form of domestic politics. But in the cold light of day, it doesn’t fix a single problem. Only effective global coordination can do that.
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