A New England Patriots Boeing 767-300 jet with a shipment of over one million N95 masks from China, to be used in Boston and New York
It is a human inclination to see the major crises we face as unprecedented and to forecast a totally new and different world in their wake. But there is no evidence that the world has ever changed in such a radical and tragic way because of a single event, regardless of its magnitude. The major economic, political and social changes that have occurred in the world did so as the result of a complex interplay of numerous factors, and also not in one go, or even a short time, but over a considerable length of time. So why do analysts today keep insisting that the Covid-19 pandemic is such a watershed that the world will be forever different from now on?
With regards to the world order, the insistence stems from a rush to determine which of the two will come out on top: the US or China. That haste, in turn, has its roots in quite a bit of wishful thinking. Anti-American pundits, ideologically, culturally or otherwise, are already reading coronavirus-related developments as a sign of China’s pre-eminence. They point to reports showing how Beijing has succeeded in containing the virus while the US still appears at a loss despite the fact that it has been three weeks since it went into lockdown. They also apply a blinkered approach to the consequences on the US economy of the bans on social gatherings, stay-at-home policies, the closure of businesses and financial institutions, forecasting debilitating recession for years to come.
The official US response to heralds of the end of the era of US hegemony and the beginning of the age of China’s world leadership started with an attack against Chinese culinary culture and how eating certain animals caused the virus to spread from beast to man. President Trump then leapt at the chance to speak of the “Chinese virus” instead of using the scientific name. A Bloomberg report in early April cited conjecture that Beijing was under-reporting. Whereas China reported that the virus had claimed some 3,200 dead and less than 100,000 infected, the news outlet cited US intelligence sources as saying that the real figures were many times higher, which ironically seems to bolster claims of the “Chinese miracle” in defeating the virus. Bloomberg also charged that China’s attempts to hide data about the numbers of cases and patterns of transmission aided the spread of the virus from Chinese airports to the rest of the world.
Marion Smith, in USA Today, points her finger at the Chinese system of government under the Communist Party. “The coronavirus crisis proves communism is still a grave threat to the entire world,” she writes beneath the headline “Blame the Chinese Communist Party for the coronavirus.” She argues that the party’s restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression and its control over dissemination of information enabled Beijing to hide crucial information and to falsely claim it had overcome the crisis. If Beijing had behaved like Western democratic countries where decision-making is decentralised and everybody is free to say what they want, the crisis would never have happened. The implication is that purported Chinese success and US failure is a product of fudging the facts and overlooking essential differences between China and the US so as to paint the former as superior.
The exchange of such barrages between pro-Americans and pro-Chinese thrives on rumour and uncorroborated information. In fact, there are reports that exonerate China as the source of the lethal virus. They argue that the virus had lain latent in some humans for many years until an evolutionary mutation in its hosts enabled it to transform into a destructive epidemic. As regards the accusation that China concealed vital information from the rest of the world, other reports indicate that the CIA is the only intelligence agency in the world that has a special department dedicated to gathering information on potential threats to public health as a result of biological contamination introduced into the US from abroad. Could this mean that the CIA failed in the performance of its duties and that pointing the finger at China is a way to cover this up? According to the same reports, German intelligence had managed to unearth information about the spread of the virus in China before it was officially acknowledged by Beijing. Could it also be that the approximately 80,000 cases in China are more accurate, that China did not perform a miracle and that the virus merely receded on its own as the result of strict social distancing measures and other such policies?
The rush to apportion blame to either the US or China coincided with a similar rush to forecast the pandemic’s impact on the world order. In their haste, some analysts stretched parallels with previous international crises to extremes. The article, “The Coronavirus Could Reshape Global Order: China Is Manoeuvring for International Leadership as the United States Falters,” in Foreign Affairs on 18 March, takes historical comparisons to a height of superficiality when it warns of another “Suez moment”. The co-authors maintain that the current Covid-19 crisis could have a similar impact on the world order as the Suez crisis in 1956 (the botched British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal). Just as that intervention marked the end of France and Britain as global powers and ushered in the US-USSR bipolar order, so too will coronavirus end the US’s centrality in the world order and give rise to another world order dominated by China.
One reason this prognosis is so far-fetched is that it is based on an inaccurate reading of the evolution of the world order, which was built on the outcome of World War II while the tripartite invasion merely crowned an already existing division of the world between the eastern and western blocs. Secondly, the prediction that China will take the helm due to Covid-19 has nothing solid to support it. The current crisis is unlikely to alter the fact that the US will remain the world’s largest economic and military power for many years to come. It is also unclear whether Beijing, itself, really wants to take the helm, even if it had the qualifications. And, no matter how fervently the US’s ideological or cultural opponents pray for its downfall, it is uncertain whether other aspiring powers like Russia, Brazil or India would go for a Chinese-based world order that marginalises the US.
What is certain is that, despite the gravity of crisis and the fears it has generated at all levels, it is too early to state with any degree of certainty how it began, and it is far too early to determine where its repercussions will lead.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly