During the plague outbreak in Athens around 430 BCE., Thucydides, in The History of the Peloponnesian War, describes how the face of human nature changed: honor was replaced by self-indulgence. People became desperate and lost their capacity for unified resistance to the plague. Faced with coronavirus (COVID-19), we are witnessing similar difficulties as the nations of the world respond with varying degrees of readiness, effectiveness and caring.
China has demonstrated the effectiveness of a determined, unified response to COVID-19. In effect, it mobilised the entire country and its vast resources to contain the virus, building mobile hospitals from scratch in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and epicentre of the pandemic. Thousands of healthcare workers and massive levels of medical supplies were directed to the area, and Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was quarantined as a means of containing the virus as much as possible. Other nations have replicated the quarantine model with similar results.
It is also notable that as the virus spread throughout the globe, China, not the European Union, United States or other western nations, took the lead in sharing expertise and resources. It sent healthcare experts and medical supplies to Italy and Spain, the worst affected EU countries. At the same time, Germany, France and other EU nations turned a deaf ear to Italy's request for medical supplies needed to save citizens' lives by imposing export limits on these supplies. When Chinese medical equipment was delivered to Italy, Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s Foreign Minister, pointedly noted: ‘We are not alone, there are people in the world who want to help Italy.’ When the EU closed its borders and denied help to Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, China sent healthcare workers and medical aid there too. President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia said: ‘European solidarity does not exist … I believe in help from China’.
Although under EU sanctions, Russia and Cuba also sent healthcare providers and medical aid to Italy. According to Reuters, Russia sent at least 15 military planes with medical equipment and healthcare providers, as well as one planeload of humanitarian aid to New York. Peter Kornbluh, Director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, remarked: ‘The arrival of a medical brigade from Cuba to Italy is pretty historic. You have a leading European nation accepting support in the form of a medical team from a small Caribbean island.’
The response to coronavirus is demonstrating that the role of leadership and response abdicated by the US is being filled by other nations.
Without its own centralised healthcare system, the EU must rely on its individual members for responses in such crises. It simply does not have the appropriate resources and mechanisms available to respond in a unified, effective manner. It also does not have sufficient emergency supplies on hand to respond in a timely manner to quickly emerging health crises. In effect, it is dependent on the action of individual member nations or must import resources from outside the EU. With the Stability and Growth Pact, the European Union Commission (EUC) imposed austere fiscal restrictions on the budgets of the healthcare systems of member states after the 2009 financial crisis. Recently, the EUC made an unprecedented decision to activate ‘the general escape clause’, thereby allowing member states to spend ‘as much as they need’.
Individual EU nation-states can declare a state of emergency, but not the EU as a body. Suspending the Schengen Agreement and closing national borders within the EU appears to have been successful in containing the pandemic. Oddly enough, the sovereignty of the individual EU nations, rather than the strength of the entire union, has become the most efficient means of protecting citizens from coronavirus. Moreover, Germany and Italy consider the law a tool for protecting their domestic strategic industries from foreign – EU or non-EU – interests. Peter Altmaier, German Minister of Economy, declared: ‘We will avoid a sell-out of German economic and industrial concerns.’ Karl Marx’s thesis of the ‘withering away of the state’ or the globalist’s ideal of the ‘state without boundaries’ would seem to be secondary to the Hegelian idea of a nation-state: ‘The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.’ In September 2019, President Trump affirmed the concept of the individual nation-state at the United Nations: ‘The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens’.
At the same time, the response of the US to the COVID-19 crisis has been reluctant and, quite simply, late. Today, it has more coronavirus cases than any other country. Its healthcare system is staggering under the limitations of insufficient medical supplies and other resources, due in no small part to the fact that the health system is based on a for-profit model, rather than one driven by the needs of people. A system based on profit never prepares adequately for dramatic, unanticipated increases in need, nor is it able to export significant volumes of medical supplies to other countries. Even though the US is more focused on domestic issues than international engagement at this time, it should still demonstrate more support for those countries who look to it as a world leader in times of great need. As Rush Doshi, Director of the China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC put it: ‘This could be the first major global crisis in decades without meaningful U.S. leadership and with significant Chinese leadership’.
The response to coronavirus is thus demonstrating that the role of leadership and response abdicated by the US is being filled capably and admirably by other nations. For instance, Venezuela has a shortage of medical supplies and healthcare providers because of sanctions imposed by western countries. When it requested help to address the coronavirus crisis, the US refused to ease sanctions, and the International Monetary Fund dismissed the request. Instead of demonstrating leadership and a broad worldview in helping Venezuela contain the pandemic, the US exerted more pressure on it.
Of all the outcomes of this crisis, one of the most important and enduring may be that it confirms the emergence of a multipolar world.
Solidarity, friendship and mutual understanding among countries are ideals that should transcend monetary or political considerations. Willingness to help other nations, whether they are neighbours, allies or those with which we have profound disagreements, will speak eloquently to the capacity of the US to fulfil its status as a world leader. Sending healthcare providers to the most affected areas of the world will help us learn more about the virus, as much as show our ability to transcend geopolitics and respond to a pressing human crisis. By abdicating its status as a world leader in this crisis, the US is not only losing face with the rest of the world, it is leaving the field to other nations who can and are stepping up to help others. Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was the first national government official to visit China after the outbreak there. China appreciated his gesture and delivered healthcare providers and medical aid to Serbia when the virus struck there. The crown of every true friendship is to try to understand and help in the struggle of others in a time of need.
History teaches us that after every world crisis, the world is faced with new challenges. Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, has proposed an idea of a European ‘Marshall Plan’, similar to the US plan that helped Europe rebuild its economy after World War II. The EU has announced that it will make available 500 billion euros to assist with the economic recovery of its member states. However, while the pandemic has given it a chance to show unity, it is instead fighting over how to allocate funds to its most vulnerable members.
Of all the outcomes of this crisis, one of the most important and enduring may be that it confirms the emergence of a multipolar world. China and Russia have proved their sense of solidarity and seized the opportunity to strengthen their standing and credibility in the world order. If it learns nothing else from this experience, the US should recognise the need to re-examine its foreign policy agenda, the meaning of solidarity with other countries and its leadership role in world affairs, as well as its domestic policy, which needs to work harder for the benefit of its people.
This article was first published on International Affairs Forum.