Some 4.5 billion people around the world are still living in either partial or complete lockdown, or in self-isolation in the framework of governmental efforts to contain the global coronavirus pandemic. Governments have been fully-mobilised to reach this challenging goal, though the German government announced Friday, 17 April, that it had successfully brought the pandemic under control after the numbers of those infected is less than those cured of Covid-19. In other European countries that have been heavily affected by the pandemic, like Italy and France for example, it seems that the curve will be flattened very soon, if it has not already reached this stage. Denmark decided to resume schools and other commercial activities gradually while remaining vigilant.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the US administration of President Donald Trump opted for an early resumption of work, leaving it to state governors to make the decision according to the prevailing situation in each affected state. Initially, President Trump, in one of his daily briefings, said that he is the one who has the authority to decree a return to normal life; however, this claim was widely disputed. The US president had to make a U-turn under pressure from both Democrats and Republicans.
The politics of fighting the coronavirus, nationally and internationally, has become a serious challenge in its own right — a situation that has hampered, so far, a concerted international effort to formulate a common action plan to deal with the virus. In countries that will go to the polls sometime this year, like the United States that will see presidential and congressional elections, the politics of the fight against the pandemic has had two results. The first is the political manipulation of national efforts to bring the pandemic under control, and the second is the exacerbation of political divisions. The United States is a case in point. Both congressional Republicans and Democrats have not succeeded to pass a second financial rescue plan for small businesses which were allotted $250 billion in the CARES law.
On the other hand, President Trump, in a highly problematic appeal, asked his followers to “liberate” three states — Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia — from their respective governors, who are all Democrats. Democrats accused him of fomenting a “civil war” in America. In response, he doubled down on his unprecedented demand. Some pundits offered an explanation for such a grave appeal. With 22 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits, the US president is afraid to lose the November elections to the candidate of the Democrats, most likely former vice president Joe Biden. So, he is pulling all the stops to have a good chance of re-election.
Not only national politics has fallen hostage to the virus but also international relations, too. A case in point is rising tensions between the United States and some Western countries and China, that stands accused of wilfully manipulating official information concerning the extent of the pandemic, and the numbers of those affected and those who died because of Covid-19. The Central Intelligence Agency is investigating the matter and the cause of the coronavirus. The late announcement by Chinese authorities on Friday, 17 April, that there had been a number of virus-related deaths that were not reported immediately, has given ammunition to Western leaders who have accused China of being responsible for the pandemic and of not sharing information in a transparent way. President Trump is one of those leaders who has gone as far as accusing the World Health Organisation of collusion with the Chinese government. Of course, Beijing insists that it shared with the world all information concerning the coronavirus as hit the country.
These differences among two permanent members on the UN Security Council have impeded international efforts to pass a resolution by the council on the coronavirus. This paralysis has demonstrated the lack of political will within the council to overcome any differences of opinion as to the origin of the virus in order to formulate guidelines to fight the pandemic, and earmark enough funds to help the international economy and trade navigate successfully this situation, unprecedented since the Great Depression of 1929. Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state and former national security adviser under the Nixon and Ford administrations, predicted that generations to come will pay the price of this pandemic. This is, probably, the reason why the world badly needs an international mobilisation to coordinate policies and raise enough financial resources to help the most affected countries to cope with the catastrophic financial cost of fighting coronavirus.
In the last few days, international officials have warned that Africa could be the next place where the pandemic will ravage many poor communities and countries. They estimate that African countries will need billions of dollars to deal with the coronavirus. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have jointly earmarked the sum of $52 billion for Africa, a quarter of what is needed. On the other hand, G-20 member countries have agreed on a deferment plan for the poorest countries which are heavily indebted. The foreign debts of the emerging and developing countries stand at $11 billion, and the interests due on this staggering amount of debt is $3 billion for 2020/2021. Given these figures the question of debt forgiveness should be looked into with the hope that creditor countries and international economic and financial institutions could come up with an ambitious and far-sighted plan in this regard. If not complete forgiveness, then partial, that would cover half the foreign debts incurred by developing countries, particularly the poorest amongst them, could cushion not only the indebted governments from insecurity and instability, but also the international system as a whole.
In a belated move, 13 countries released a joint statement Saturday, 18 April, in which they stated, “it is vital that we work together to save lives and livelihoods”. The group committed to coordinate with other countries on “public health, travel, trade, economic and financial measures in order to minimise disruptions” and “to recover stronger”. The group includes Britain, France, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, South Korea, Turkey, Canada, Brazil, Italy, Singapore and Germany. The group of 13 emphasised the need for global cooperation to ease the economic impact of the coronavirus. This is a statement of political will to cooperate in order to mitigate the destabilising consequences of the pandemic. However, it lacks specifics, which is the most important part.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly