COVID-19 Could Result in a Geopolitical Face-Off

Historically, pandemics have been portals for dramatic change.

The world is facing an implacable viral foe, named COVID-19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on February 11. This battle plays out against the background of existing geopolitical contestation between a dangerously isolationist and transactional US and an assertive and even jingoistic China.

Their trade tussle, with the US weaponising higher tariffs, was partially settling as reports emerged from Wuhan, China of cases of pneumonia, finally reported to WHO on December 31. On January 13, Thailand detected an infected Chinese from Wuhan. Three days later Japan confirmed the illness in a Wuhan returnee. The US encountered its first case on January 21 in the state of Washington. The next day, Wuhan went into lockdown, which has now been lifted after 76 days.

Questions have since arisen over whether signals were missed or if the WHO overindulgent with China declared it to be a pandemic only on March 11. On January 28, Tedros Adhanom, The WHO director-general, met Chinese President Xi Jinping. In fact, the travel ban imposed by the US on January 31 on Wuhan connected returnees, riled China.

Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, January 28, 2020. Photo: Naohiko Hatta/Pool via Reuters

By end-February, the situation worsened in Europe, compelling Italy to lock down parts of Lombardy. However, US President Donald Trump was publicly still dismissive of the coronavirus, terming it a “hoax” by Democrats. In India, on February 24-25 he revelled in milling crowds in Ahmedabad, explored the romantic mystique of Taj Mahal and finally arrived in New Delhi to attend the programme organised by an indulgent Indian host Narendra Modi. Back in the US, reality dawned as the first traces of community-based infection were found and three days later the first COVID-19 death took place.

Being a federation, some US governors and mayors had already begun imposing social distancing norms and had started ramping-up medical preparedness. President Trump set-up a coronavirus task force on January 29 but his public messaging negated a serious response. Its member and White House Trade Adviser Peter Navarro in a January 29 memo highlighted the “risk of the corona virus evolving into a full-blown pandemic imperilling the lives of millions of Americans”.

Also read: US-China Spat Ensures UN Security Council is Missing in Action on COVID-19 Pandemic

On February 23, he followed up with a warning that there was an “increasing probability” of 100 million Americans falling sick and one million dying. Trump acolyte British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is now recovering from COVID-19, also originally pooh-poohed the risk, advocating the development of herd immunity as the virus rolled through the UK. Sweden has adopted a somewhat similar line, balancing economic stability against some human sacrifice. Next door, Norway has contrariwise used strict social distancing to control an outbreak. But in an election year for the US, and with many big states under Democrat governors, an economics-over-life approach was not implementable.

The immediate geopolitical outcome of the crisis is exacerbated Sino-US bickering and a stymied UN Security Council. President Trump provocatively dubbed it the Chinese or Wuhan virus. The Chinese retaliated by resorting to an aggressive propaganda push that disputed the origins of the virus and implied that it was a Western anti-China bio-weapon. A Russian disinformation campaign further stirred the conspiracy theory. President Trump has since halted US funding to the WHO, which will cripple it as the disease inevitably spreads to developing nations.

As China revives its productive capacity after shaking off the coronavirus, it is advantageously positioned to play the saviour. It claims to have despatched over 300 charter flights with medical supplies, besides a hundred medical specialists, to 48 countries, especially to Italy, which received little in the way of aid from the EU. Russia likewise flew medical aid to Italy in aeroplanes emblazoned with a slogan purloined from a James Bond movie, “From Russia with Love”. Similarly, Chinese medical activism in the SAARC neighbourhood is underway. The president of Serbia has questioned European solidarity and concluded that only China can help. This Sino-Russian good Samaritan act can splinter an already divided European Union and fractured Atlantic alliance.

Historically, pandemics have been portals for dramatic change. Kyle Harper in an article in Foreign Policy, quoted Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who survived the 14th-century Great Plague, as saying that random pathogens can cause the rise and fall of empires and civilisations. Harper concluded that “that biological shocks often coincide with moments of transformation and change – and sometimes even progress”.

Also read: India Indicates Trump’s WHO Fund Freeze Is Ill-Timed, as It Weighs the Tedros Equation

Henry Kissinger, in the Wall Street Journal, suggested a three-point formula for the US. One, the US must lead with a new Marshall Plan as a part of the global fight against infectious diseases. Two, it must revive not just the US but a dangerously contracting global economy. Three, the US must safeguard principles of the liberal world order, which ensure security, order, economic wellbeing and justice for all. In countries like Hungary, the pandemic prompted Prime Minister Viktor Orban to eliminate the last remnants of liberal democracy.

Right-wing populists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson acquired power by tapping into popular resentment against globalisation and immigrants. COVID-19 will end globalisation in its current form. For instance, China today controls 90% of the US supply of antibiotics and 70% of ingredients for US drugs. The arrangement is untenable given that it is also the source of the current pandemic. After the 2008 global financial crisis, the wealth of the 26 richest individuals is equal to that of half the world’s net worth.

A view of a nearly deserted Broad street and the New York Stock Exchange building in the financial district of lower Manhattan during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., April 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar

A new world order that redefines national security, economic priorities, health protocols and systems, compact and self-sufficient supply chains, ecological sustainability etc., is inevitable. India could shape it, which it missed out on when the present post-World War II world-order was established.

But Prime Minister Modi has to think big and think different. Much of his existing domestic agenda is anachronistic. The Rs 20,000 crore Central Vista project or the wasteful National Register of Citizens cannot be the top priorities when people want their livelihoods back. Even more significantly, like a war-time leader, he must forge national political unity.

The Modi government’s recent actions exemplify the opposite. The WHO declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic on March 11. For a week after that, Scindia’s defection and the toppling of the Madhya Pradesh Congress government on March 18 preoccupied the government. The Tablighi Jamaat, which became a coronavirus hotspot, met on March 13-15 under the government’s nose in Nizamuddin.

Also read: China Downplays India Plan to Boycott Belt and Road Forum

Parliament was not adjourned until March 23 and then a full lockdown imposed, without any notice, a day later. Migrant workers fled in complete disarray. Tough tasks lie ahead, to keep the fatalities low but to also let crops be reaped, workers gradually returned to jobs while testing, tracing and treating. India may have an ally: universal BCG vaccination – which some studies claim increases anti-viral resistance. But above all PM Modi must begin practising his own preaching: Sabka saath sabka vishwaas.

K.C. Singh is a retired Indian civil servant and was the Indian ambassador to Iran.