COVID-19: a global game-changer
G Parthasarathy explores how the fallout of the worldwide pandemic is impacting international relations and altering power equations
As the coronavirus continues to pose a serious threat to human lives and wellbeing, one can nevertheless be gratified by some of the cooperative efforts now underway to globalise the quest for a remedy to this deadly challenge. This situation should also be analysed by looking at China’s present efforts to cooperate with countries ranging from Italy and Spain to Cyprus and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, China, whose actions triggered this crisis, now appears all too ready to provide what virtually every nation now desperately needs, particularly by way of protective equipment and machinery, as countries across the world engage in a sometimes-unseemly scramble to obtain relief supplies from China.
While China’s industrial progress since the 1980s has been path-breaking, there have been a number of complaints about medical and other equipment it has supplied recently, which it will have to address quickly if it is to maintain its credibility as a reliable supplier of sophisticated machinery, equipment and know-how.
The Chinese refusal to accept any responsibility for the impact of what transpired in the city of Wuhan is unfortunate and, for many, unpardonable. In response to US queries and requests for samples of relevant material from Wuhan, China blandly claimed that it had ‘no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission’ of the coronavirus, and denied US experts any access to materials. President Trump has faced considerable criticism that he was ‘taken for a ride’ by the Chinese, who stalled his administration’s efforts to ascertain the full facts. Wuhan, the hub of China’s industrial, technological and educational development for the past four decades, is also a major international centre for educational and technological development. The global tragedy that the world faces today is widely and almost universally accepted as having emerged from there, though initial assumptions that the virus emerged from the Hunan wholesale seafood market in the city are now being questioned.
The Trump Administration has been outraged by the absence of Chinese actions to immediately bring these developments to the notice of the world. Around 38,000 American citizens and residents were flown back from China to major American cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco in the weeks following the Wuhan shutdown. Inexplicably, this was done without comprehensive medical checks on returning passengers. The tragedy that has befallen Americans, as their cities are ravaged and thousands lose their lives to the coronavirus, is the direct outcome of these developments. China, now evidently confident that it will emerge as the unquestioned Number One global power, is in no mood to express any regrets to the US, or to the world at large. While it could take years for the US to recover fully from the challenges it now faces, China appears determined to establish its dominance globally. It is challenging US power by flying in ‘relief supplies’ across the world as the US looks on. Not surprisingly, Putin’s Russia, which shares a long common border with China, has acted quietly, clinically and decisively to deal with the issue. But it still has a long road ahead in dealing with the crisis.
In India, the Modi Government carried out a swift and comprehensive assessment of the challenges ahead almost immediately after the crisis broke. It realised that, given its limited means, it would have to attach the highest priority to keeping the bulk of its population away from the possibility of any contact with those affected. As huge numbers of Indian nationals had to be brought back from locations ranging from Wuhan to Italy, strict restrictions were placed on international flights and incoming passengers were subjected to a two-week-long isolation before being released. The Indian Federal System was put to the test, with Prime Minister Modi taking the lead, holding several teleconferences with state chief ministers, who acted swiftly, isolating those believed to be infected. There have been complications in India arising from incidents involving the International Islamic Tablighi Jamaat, whose actions have posed serious challenges to the lives of people, not only from the national capital but from townships across the country, which its members from across the Islamic world visited. But state governments across India cooperated constructively in dealing with this crisis with fortitude, tact and patience.
Nobody in India has any illusions that the months and indeed years ahead are going to be easy, even as measures are underway to expand hospital spaces, import and manufacture hospital equipment such as ventilators. New Delhi is also making use of its large pharmaceutical industry to cooperate with others in supplying medicines urgently required across the world. One hopes that knowledge acquired during ongoing research, now underway across the world, is freely and expeditiously shared internationally.
New Delhi played a quiet, behind-the-scenes role in working with Saudi Arabia to arrange a teleconference of G20 leaders to work out measures for the world’s major economic powers to cooperatively address issues pertaining to the coronavirus crisis. This was followed up by a video-conference meeting of G20 health ministers on April 19, which declared the need to focus more attention on dealing with ‘the risks posed by the pandemic to developing and least developed countries where health systems and economies may be less able to cope with the challenge’. India also organised a teleconference of leaders of South Asian countries, which was followed by the establishing of a regional fund to facilitate measures to deal with the crisis. More attention must, however, be paid to the challenges countries in Africa will inevitably face.
India has also been deeply concerned by the bitterness that now characterises the US-China relationship. Given the tensions and angry rhetoric clouding the relationship between the two superpowers, which has deteriorated in the wake of the pandemic, India hopes that the European Union and the UK will play a more active role in getting both countries to eschew rhetoric and move cooperatively towards finding solutions and addressing the suffering and trauma people across the world are set to face in the coming months. However, this is going to be difficult, given the seething anger across the US, the UK and European Union about China’s approach to a crisis which was triggered on its soil.
G. Parthasarathy, a career Foreign Service Officer, is currently Chancellor of the Central University of Jammu and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He previously served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office