Global response

Differing approaches

Print edition : April 24, 2020

Volunteers spraying disinfectant in the streets of Tehran on April 3. Photo: VIA REUTERS

COVID-19 is stretching health care systems across the world, but the international community has not been able to get its act together so far to come up with an effective global response to the health crisis or its economic fallout.

IN an appeal to the international community in the third week of March, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres requested an “immediate global ceasefire” and the waiving of sanctions that “undermine the capacity” of nations to focus on the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. He emphasised that unlike any other global health crisis this particular pandemic had severely impacted the global economy and upended the lives of people. “Our human family is stressed and the global family is being torn,” Guterres said. “We are in an unprecedented situation and normal rules do not apply.” The Secretary-General called on world leaders to join hands and come forward with a united response in the battle against COVID-19. He has said that this is the worst crisis humanity has faced since the end of the Second World War.

The U.N. chief referred to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report which concluded that workers would lose around $3.4 trillion in income by the end of the year. Low-paid workers and women in particular will be among the main sufferers as the pandemic plays out, Guterres warned. He said that “the recovery should not come on the backs of the poorest—and we cannot create a legion of new poor” and requested that a $2 billion emergency fund be set up to help war-torn countries such as Yemen and Afghanistan cope with the pandemic. He wants trillions of dollars more to be used as a financial stimulus to stave off a gargantuan catastrophe that has the potential to claim millions of lives.

Bland pledges

The international community has not been able to get its act together so far. The G7 and G20 groups of nations have held meetings during which statements expressing solidarity and bland pledges to aid the fight against the disease were made. But the fact that the G7 could not even agree to a joint statement after the meeting is illustrative of the lack of cohesion among Western powers. There were no fresh proposals on how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems keener on exploiting the pandemic for strategic and military ends than on combatting it. The other G7 Foreign Ministers refused to agree to the term “Wuhan virus” in the joint statement as the U.S. demanded. The insistence of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump on describing the pandemic as either the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus” goes against the guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which stipulate that viruses cannot be named after cities or countries.

In a statement that Yves Le Drian, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, issued after the G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting, he “underscored the need to combat any attempt to exploit the crisis for political purposes and expressed the view that the unity of all in order to effectively combat the pandemic must now take precedence over any other considerations”. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sarcastically tweeted that Pompeo should henceforth be called the “Secretary of Hate”.

The G20 tele-summit concluded with the statement that member countries remained strongly committed “to do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic” in cooperation with organisations such as the WHO, the World Bank and the ILO. “We commit to take all necessary health measures and seek to ensure adequate financing to contain the pandemic and protect people, especially the most vulnerable,” the statement said. The group pledged to inject over $5 trillion into the global economy to offset the negative impact of COVID-19. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, was critical of the role played by the WHO as the crisis was unfolding. He told his G20 colleagues that the organisation responsible for global health and well-being lacked the mandate to deal with crises of the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic and said that there was a need to strengthen and reform the WHO.

Draconian U.S. sanctions

The Trump administration has chosen to further tighten sanctions on Iran, one of the countries worst hit by the virus. Venezuela, too, has been hit by additional sanctions at a time when it is battling the pandemic with the limited resources at its disposal. Draconian U.S. sanctions have devastated the economies of the two countries. Washington has vetoed their request for an emergency aid package from the World Bank to fight the coronavirus. Pompeo instead blamed the Iranian President for “mishandling” the coronavirus crisis and “inventing” reasons to blame the U.S. Reports in the American media suggest that the hawks in the Trump administration are itching for a military confrontation with Iran even as the coronavirus is raging, mistakenly thinking that the epic scale of the epidemic has weakened the morale of the Iranian leadership and people.

In late March, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it was charging Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with indulging in “narco-terrorism” and other assorted crimes. The laughable charges were made to bolster Trump’s chances of winning the State of Florida, which has a large right-wing Venezuelan and Cuban emigre population, in the forthcoming presidential elections and precipitating regime change in Venezuela. Winning Florida is crucial for Trump. The U.S. has now said that it will lift sanctions if the government of Venezuela agrees to set up an interim government that would share power with the right-wing opposition.

As the U.S. was busy warmongering in the midst of the pandemic, the governments of Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Syria said in a joint letter that the sanctions the U.S. had imposed on them were “illegal and blatantly violate international law and the charter of the United Nations”. The letter went on to emphasise that the sanctions were seriously hampering their efforts to fight the pandemic. The “destructive impact” of these measures, the letter said, hindered the ability of the governments under sanctions to procure even basic medical necessities and supplies.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet appealed for the immediate easing of the sanctions. “It is vital to avoid the collapse of any country’s vital medical system—given the explosive impact that will have on death, suffering and wider contagion,” she said in a statement. “Obstacles to the import of vital medical supplies, including over-compliance with sanctions by banks, will create long lasting harm to vulnerable communities.” Britain, France and Germany, signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, have defied the U.S. and dispatched hospital equipment and medicine to Iran following the outbreak of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the current chairman of the G20, continues with the brutal war it has imposed on Yemen, the poorest country in the region. More than 100,000 Yemenis have perished in the war, which started four years ago. Yemen’s hospitals and health infrastructure are almost completely destroyed. A cholera epidemic killed thousands after the Saudi-led military coalition began its assault on the country. The U.S. State Department has cut its contribution to health care in Yemen at a time when the country needs it the most.

As the coronavirus rages, Israeli jets and artillery continue to target the densely packed and blockaded Gaza Strip. Coronavirus cases have been reported in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Israel has almost completely destroyed the health infrastructure of the Gaza Strip. There are only 56 ventilators and 40 intensive care beds available for a population of around two million people who live in Gaza, packed like sardines.

Under-reporting in Egypt

Egypt is not helping the embattled Gazans either. For that matter, the authoritarian military government seems to be under-reporting the spread of the virus in the most populated Arab country. A foreign correspondent was expelled for filing a story saying that the cases of coronavirus were much higher than what the government was admitting. A research paper in the medical journal Lancet suggested that in Egypt in early March there were between 6,000 and 19,300 cases of COVID-19, whereas the government’s official tally at the time was only three. By the end of March, more than 40 people were officially confirmed dead from the virus, including two senior military officers.

Modi chaired a teleconference of member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on March 15 to chart out a common strategy to confront the pandemic. The SAARC grouping, which was consigned to irrelevance after Modi came to power, is yet to come out with a united response on how to tackle it. The Indian government offered $10 million to start an emergency fund to fight the virus in the region. Most of the other countries have pledged contributions, but the amounts promised are even more miserly than that pledged by India.

Most of the governments in the world were slow to heed the serious warnings from organisations such as the WHO about the danger the coronavirus posed to humankind and are now paying the price. Japan had no other option but to finally agree to postponing the Tokyo Olympic Games by a year. The Japanese government had hoped that the Games, which were to be held in the middle of the year, would give the economy a much-needed boost. Japanese officials admit that the government is facing “severe circumstances” because of the pandemic. Japan has the third largest economy after the U.S. and China.

Like most countries affected by the pandemic, Japan has passed an economic stimulus package. Worth $530 billion, it is the biggest in its history so far. Critics accuse the government of not having taken the virus threat seriously and allowing business activities and work to go on as usual. Now with the virus spreading through clusters, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is getting ready to declare “a national emergency”. Many Japanese are wary about giving the government untrammelled powers because of the country’s history. South Korea and Singapore have been praised for being able to curtail infections. But they could only do so by resorting to invasive surveillance and authoritarian measures. And the virus has made a comeback, with new cases being reported in both countries.

Pretext to grab more power

Many other rulers around the world have been using the crisis triggered by the pandemic as a pretext to arbitrarily grab more power. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shut down courts and ordered intrusive surveillance into the activities of citizens. By tracing call records, the government can identify those who defy quarantine orders and send them to jail for a period of six months. Because courts have been ordered to close, Netanyahu has managed to avoid trial on corruption charges. Prosecutors had filed a foolproof case against him. Now instead of spending time in jail, he continues as Prime Minister.

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, can now rule by decree after the parliament conferred on him the requisite power to do so indefinitely. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has been given emergency powers by the legislature dominated by his supporters. He has announced a ceasefire with the communists to concentrate on fighting the virus but has also promulgated shoot at sight orders on those breaking the quarantine curfew.

In Chile, the government has sent the army to patrol the streets. Anti-government protesters who were on the streets for months on end are no longer allowed to congregate in public squares. The military-backed government in Bolivia, which had illegally seized power, has used the pandemic as a pretext to postpone elections. The governments in France and the United Kingdom now have the right to detain people and close borders.

The West was critical of China when it locked down the city of Wuhan to control the virus. Now they are taking a leaf out of China’s book. The U.S. Justice Department asked Congress to give it the authority to detain people without trial and eliminate legal protection for asylum seekers. Congress refused the request.

Italy declared a national emergency on January 31 immediately after it confirmed its first two cases, but this did not stop the spread of the virus in the province of Lombardy, the most prosperous region in the country. The death toll in Italy has exceeded that of China. The U.S. and the U.K. were even more lax in their reactions. After initially downplaying the gravity of the situation and prioritising the safeguarding of the economy, Trump now says that human lives are more important. The U.K. government was initially willing to sacrifice significant numbers of people in exchange for long-term “herd immunity” against the virus. With the Prime Minister himself along with his Health Secretary and the Prince of Wales catching the virus, better sense has finally prevailed. And for the first time since the Second World War, the iconic Wimbledon tournament, which was due to be held in June, has been cancelled, and the popular football league season has been postponed indefinitely.

The U.S. President recently admitted that around 200,000 Americans could perish before the pandemic ebbs and only self-isolation and social distancing would prevent the numbers from going up even further. He said that it would be “a good job” if the casualty figures remained below that figure. By April 1, the U.S. casualty figures had already surpassed China’s. If the apocalyptic forecasts become a reality, the U.S. will lose more lives than were lost in all the wars the country has fought over the last 70 years.

By the first week of April, three out of four Americans were effectively forced to stay indoors. Unemployment levels in the U.S. are now at a record high. The U.S. government will be implementing a $2 trillion bailout package to address the effects of the pandemic on the its economy. Unemployment benefits will be given to all workers claiming them for 13 weeks. The military industrial sector will also be a major beneficiary of the bailout. In most parts of the world, the working class has been given a raw deal as governments spend most of their resources on bailing out failing conglomerates.

Trump may have changed his mind about the virus, but his ideological soulmate, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, is still insisting that business should go on as usual in his country and that the coronavirus is nothing but a “measly cold”. Fortunately, the Brazilian public and many people in his own ruling coalition do not agree with his suicidal take on the pandemic. Bolsonaro criticised the local governments of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for introducing quarantine measures, saying that they should be held responsible for the economic slowdown that has already hit Brazil. The country has the highest number of reported cases of the virus and casualties in Latin America. People in Sao Paulo and other cities have been staging “pot banging” protests at night calling for the resignation of their President.