By Rajan Philips –
On 15 November 2008, when the global economy was in the throes of the great recession, then US President George W. Bush convened the first G20 summit in Washington, to launch a collective global effort to stem the deepening financial crisis. Six years later, when Ebola virus struck West Africa, it was President Obama’s turn to lead the world response to that deadly epidemic. Both Presidents were in their second term, and neither was at the height of his popularity within America. Outside America Bush was universally reviled for his Iraq invasion, and Obama had lost much of the initial sheen after one term in office. Yet, they did what responsible leaders are supposed to do in times of crises. Their interventions made a difference and significantly reduced the devastation and deaths that would otherwise have been the case in 2008 and in 2014. Contrast the concerted global response undertaken already twice this century by two former US Presidents, with the total absence of any co-ordinated global response to the twin crises of coronavirus and a second economic recession, and the conspicuous incompetence of the current US President and his inability to show any sensible leadership when such leadership is most needed.
True, a summit gathering at this time is out of the question. In fact, in-person assembly of world leaders and their families should be ruled out for all time because they are expensive and hugely disruptive to the local populations of the host countries. The annual UN pilgrimage to New York City with all the family and friends in tow is another monumental waste of time and resources. Leaders can co-ordinate through skype and conference calls at a moment’s notice to deal with any situation, and any other US President would have done just that following the examples of President Bush and President Obama. Not Trump.
The US sent 10,000 American personnel to West Africa to fight the Ebola crisis. President Obama set up a new global health security unit as part of the National Security Council. Trump disbanded it, cut funding to American health agencies, and generally withdrew from practically every commitment overseas, including the Paris Climate Accord and the Iranian nuclear deal. Indicating that he was going to do something big to stem the current coronavirus threat, Trump ordered a 30-day ban on all travel from Europe to the US, without any prior notification or consultation with the European Union or national governments. Courtesy is allergic to Trump. Earlier, he had banned travel from China, South Korea and other non-western countries. And he showed his inane racism by calling the coronavirus a “foreign virus.” His domestic performance in the current crisis situation is no less appalling.
America’s saving grace is that its institutions, medical scientists, health professionals and civic leaders are picking up the presidential slack at every level of the country’s political society and community. Equally, there is great co-ordination across national boundaries among medical scientists and the professionals, and the technical leadership is being provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), one of the specialized agencies of the United Nations. For all the flak that is flung at the UN from the mighty USA to little Sri Lanka, it is pertinent to ask where the world would be in a time such as this without the UN and its agencies. It is no different from the endless questioning of the role of government by market worshippers, and the grudging realization that there is no substitute for the government to deal with disaster situations, whether it is brought about by an epidemic, economic implosion, or the nature’s furies.
Containment and Cure
China has demonstrated the full muscle of its state in containing the new coronavirus more than three months after it escaped from a Chinese wet market targeting human hosts. In Wuhan, the capital city of the central province of Hubei, where the virus spread started, COVID-19 is “basically curbed” according to President Xi Jinping. That is after extreme measures such as the total lockdown of the entire province and its 60 million people. Lockdown, isolation, instant building of new hospitals to provide surge capacity, and fortressing relatively unaffected cities such as Beijing, have been the modus operandi of the Chinese government to bring the virus under control. A senior Chinese medical adviser, Zhong Nanshan, has indicated that if the rest of the world would also take similarly aggressive measures, the virus threat could be contained globally in a matter of months, by June of this year. That should be encouraging news to other countries now battling the virus.
According to the WHO, the reported cases at the end of last week are 136,875 in 128 countries, including 5,077 deaths. The leading scorers are China (80,981), Italy (15,113), Iran (11,364) and South Korea (7,979). Three countries have over 2500 cases: Spain (4,209), Germany (3,062) and France (2860). There are 1,264 cases in the US, and all the countries have less than 1000 cases. Many of them have under 100 cases, including the South Asian countries – India (81), Pakistan (20), Maldives (8), Bangladesh (3), and Sri Lanka is also reported as having three cases. Italy and Iran are still under water, while South Korea has managed to contain the virus spread. The coming week will show trends in Europe and the US.
Africa would seem to be the safest continent, partly because of the small proportion of elderly people. The HIV epidemic had reduced the average life expectancy in Africa, to around 50 years at one point in some countries, and there are not many people over 70 or 80 years now living in Africa. The elderly are the most vulnerable cohorts to COVID-19, and Italy with the largest proportion of elderly citizens is registering the highest death rate owing to the new virus. With 81 cases, India’s tally is remarkably low for a country of 1.3 billion people. Hopefully, it would stay that way. For Sri Lanka, being small is not only beautiful, but is also safe. Like Singapore and Hong Kong, Sri Lanka is fortunate in having a single international airport and maritime isolation, as natural barriers against global epidemics. Sri Lanka has a high rate of life expectancy comparable to Western countries, which also means that Sri Lanka has a high proportion of vulnerable elderly people.
One aspect of the contagion spread that is being noted by some researchers is the east-west stretching of the coronavirus outbreak corridor between the 30th and 50th parallels, and including countries and regions where the average temperatures are between five-to-eleven Celsius and relative humidity ranges from 47 to 79 per cent. The virus has shown itself being able to spread through carriers who do not show any symptoms of carrying it. In the absence of an effective vaccine, the likelihood, according to epidemiologists, is that the virus will keep “spreading at a high rate and becomes endemic — regularly infecting humans, like the common cold.”
The search for the vaccine is on, but it takes time and it is not going to go according to Trump’s timetable. There is positive news, however, from Canada, where the Prime Minister’s wife has contracted COVID-19 after a visit to England and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his entire family are in two weeks of self-isolation. A team of researchers from a major Toronto hospital and two universities has isolated the virus agent that is responsible for the current outbreak. The new development is expected to help those in in the research forefront worldwide in developing better diagnosis, treatment and potentially effective vaccines.
The current crisis has also exposed the dangerous limitations of leaving health care to the market and insurance industry, which is now the state of play in the United States of America. Millions of Americans, who are temporary workers, have no insurance or free access to testing against the coronavirus. They do not have paid sick leave to stay away from work and stem the contagion spread. Absence from work will mean no pay, no income and no means to keep the house and feed the family. And the US is the only industrialized country where there is no maternity or parental leave after childbirth, and no publicly funded childcare program of any kind.
Republican presidents and politicians have consistently dismissed these benefits as ideological excesses. Not anymore. The fear of the virus, and dogged determination of Congress Democrats, has enabled bipartisan consensus and the consent of the President to pass a new legislation over this weekend. The “Families First Coronavirus Response Act”, as it is called, will provide for: free tests for everyone who needs a test, including the uninsured; paid sick leave for two weeks for individuals and up to 3 months of paid family and medical leave; and federal funding to support small businesses and health programs.
The Trump presidency has come to personify the worst in America for itself and for the rest of the world. Trump and Brexit have not only broken the world, but also their respective countries. America has never been so divided as it is now. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson is already having internal protests within his government notwithstanding his resounding general election victory. In the context of an unfolding economic crisis, each of the G20 countries is looking after its own interest rather than what is collectively good for them. The oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia shows the current divisions and lack of co-ordination. Saudi Arabia is the designated host for the next G20 summit in November 2020. That will be some gathering, with or without Trump.