Dr. Dino Patti Djalal

The Jakarta Post – March 29, 2020

The preferred policy response of every country threatened by COVID-19 seems to be a lockdown, or severely restricting movement (of people, goods and services) into and out of cities or countries. For now, this is undoubtedly the best way to slow down, contain and hopefully roll back the spread of the novel coronavirus within and between nations. But beating COVID-19 will require much more than a lockdowns, social distancing and travel bans. Even if China, South Korea and Japan succeed in scaling back the virus, that does not mean much if the rest of the world catches it.

Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed serious concern over the “alarming level of inaction” in many countries. Some countries were in denial; some responding slowly or inadequately, and many simply lack the resources to beat the virus. The peak of this pandemic is still nowhere in sight. To survive this crisis, the world community will need a heavy dose of international cooperation and leadership. 

Herein lies the problem. 

Despite the very compelling need for it, we are still not seeing the intense international cooperation needed to solve the crisis at hand. One apparent reason is an atmosphere of “every nation for itself”. The COVID-19 threat is still so new (only 11 weeks old) with so many unknowns. Terrified by the potential human and economic consequences, affected countries tend to be directing most of their energy inward.

In some cases, cooperation has also been hampered by strategic rivalry, particularly between the United States and China, meaning suspicion and zero-sum thinking continue to guide policy perspectives. You would expect the pandemic threat is so great that strategic rivals would be persuaded to temporarily shelve their competition; however, this does not seem to be the case. Worse, in some countries COVID-19 is also feeding narrow-minded nationalism, conspiracy theories, xenophobia and even Sinophobia.

The most important area for international cooperation — one that would be a definitive game changer — would be efforts to find a vaccine for the virus.

The challenge here is how to foster the right kind of international cooperation where scientists and researchers from around the world could work together freely and effectively to develop a vaccine, free from political interference and mistrust. But even when the right vaccine is found someday, it will take some time for it to pass the human testing phase, more time to be legally approved and more time yet to be produced for the billions of world citizens. The common educated guess for the time needed to get a vaccine ready for distribution is 12 to 18 months. 

This is where things would get tricky, particularly if the pandemic remains acute by then. Countries would be lining up in intense competition to access those vaccines, potentially leading to new disputes.

Who would decide which countries get them first? What would be the basis of those decisions? Who would set the price? Presently, China, Japan, the US, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, Singapore and perhaps a few others are racing to produce vaccines.

There must be a fair international arrangement to ensure all the affected countries are looked after, with the WHO at the center of this process. International cooperation would be incomplete without leadership. As diplomatic history has shown, global challenges usually become more manageable when a country or a small group of countries decides to be at the forefront of the crisis — taking the lead, applying pressure and persuasion on others, spending resources, pushing boundaries.

Some examples: 

  • After the 9/11 attacks, the US took charge by leading a global campaign against terrorism.
  • Europe in recent decades led global diplomacy on climate change. 
  • A small group of countries pushed hard for the G-20 Summit as a response to the 2008 global financial crisis. 
  • Indonesia and Australia led on problems of people-smuggling and irregular migration in the Indo-Pacific region.

As for COVID-19, along with the shortage of international cooperation, we are still not seeing any strong leadership at the international level. 

The US, with all her immense diplomatic, economic and scientific resources, is typically suited to take up this leadership role. The problem here is that, in order to lead the world, you have to want to lead, and all signs indicate that President Donald Trump is simply not interested in playing this role. This is not surprising, as the US is deep into an intense election year; Trump will thus need to amplify his “America First” mantra — not “save the world”.

President Trump’s biggest challenge is that the US may well become the next epicenter of COVID-19. The US, in just a very short time, has already passed China and Italy in the number of confirmed cases. Governor Gavin Newsom has warned Trump that California alone was in danger of 25 million COVID-19 cases in the next eight weeks. 

This means the feel-good factor (the historically low 3.5 percent unemployment) that Trump was counting on to win a second term could fast dissipate. His approach to the pandemic will therefore be very US-centric and inward-looking — despite the US$100 million COVID-19 international aid package recently announced. Trump’s political mind will be overwhelmingly consumed on how to impress his local base, not global citizens.

The next obvious leader candidate is Europe. But presently Europe lacks a coherent plan for herself, let alone for the world. European countries are busy enforcing export bans of medical supplies to plug shortages at home. Different European countries seem to have different policy responses to COVID-19; critics say Europe has not shown much solidarity with its own member – Italy. 

For now, the country that comes closest to exercising international leadership is China. Despite initial mistakes, China has earned the rare twin credentials not just as the country with one of the world’s highest COVID-19 case number (around 80,000) but also for effectively getting the pandemic under control. Wuhan, where it all started, is no longer under lockdown.

China, more than any other country, has the experience, resources and will to come to the aid of other countries affected by COVID-19. For instance, China has proactively joined a special ASEAN – China foreign ministers meeting in Laos, held video calls with 17 Central and Eastern European countries, offered assistance to other countries and is helping Indonesia with information, advice and equipment.  Undoubtedly, China wants to prove a long-standing point, that China is a (more) reliable partner, especially in times of crisis.

Somehow, this has irked the political establishment in Washington, DC. Nonetheless, the US should welcome and appreciate China’s goodwill COVID-19 diplomacy. Jeering China for helping other countries at this desperate hour would only make the US look selfish and petty in the eyes of the world community.

Indeed, this pandemic has become a test for global solidarity. Can the crisis force countries to cross their geopolitical fault lines and help one another? Can countries show more compassion, currently an undervalued currency in international affairs? 

The US, in this spirit, should heed the calls by the United Nations secretary-general to ease sanctions on Iran, which has the sixth-largest COVID-19 case number, where one person reportedly dies every 10 minutes due to a lack of resources to deal with the virus. That would be a powerful message to the world that humanity and foreign policy are not mutually exclusive. 

There are certainly some hopeful signs. Japan’s government, companies and citizens sent masks and other protective supplies to Wuhan, a move that has been reciprocated by China. Russia, China and Cuba have sent military medics and supplies to help Italy. But globally, such outreach is still the exception rather than the rule. It would be good to see this cross-border cooperation emulated and scaled up.

The recent G-20 special summit on COVID-19, held by way of video call, was a good place to start, especially the plan to inject some $5 trillion of economic stimulus globally. Unfortunately, however, underlying tension and mistrust, especially between the US and China, remain, and we can expect to see more of this competitive power play ahead at the expense of global cooperation. 

We may be about to face the perfect storm: Humanitarian disaster, global recession, severe de-globalization, crash of healthcare systems, social breakdown and conflicting nationalism. Neither China nor the US, Iran, Indonesia or any country can insulate themselves from what is to come. 

COVID-19 should be the exception to — not the extension of — geopolitical rivalry. It should be an opportunity to recover trust rather than advance mistrust. 

In these extraordinary times, I am sure I speak for world citizens that we count on our leaders to bring out their statesmanship and have the courage and imagination to think and work together to fight this pandemic in equally extraordinary ways.

This is a war we should all win.

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