The magnitude of COVID-19 is breathtaking. While the international community is expecting some good news from scientists on a redemptive vaccine, the day after can hardly be anticipated.
It is currently impossible to measure the economic and social impact of the pandemic. The duration of the problem remains unclear and makes estimations risky. The longer the duration the greater the impact.
The attention should rather be turned on how the nightmare could stop. To argue about the need for international cooperation seems a commonplace observation. The recent virtual G20 summit mirrored the determination of leaders to work together against COVID-19 and support collapsing economies. Some examples of synergies are evident, indeed.
When the virus broke out in Wuhan in January, several countries provided medical assistance. Now it is the turn of China to offer similar aid. Israel has been one of the recipient states of medical supplies such as masks and ventilators. In the case of Italy, China responded to calls for bilateral help much earlier than the EU.
The Chinese contribution to global health is currently being scrutinized by some politicians and scholars. Although it is appreciated by governments in need, critics remain skeptical. They believe solidarity alone does not explain generous actions.
Alternatively, they see an appetite from China in constructing a different narrative about COVID-19 and hiding responsibilities for the management of the crisis.
A careful analysis of Chinese policies in the 21st century exhibits continuity. After June 2003, when the World Health Organization gave Beijing a clean bill of health on SARS, the Communist Party elaborated on providing equal opportunities to health for citizens and improving the control of diseases.
China started to show a proactive stance on health affairs at the world level. An example was its fight against AIDS. More importantly, following the Ebola breakout in Western Africa in 2014, it sent monetary aid, technical assistance and medical experts.
Seeking active participation in global health governance, Beijing advocated for multilateralism and proposed a “Health Silk Road.” In particular, in June 2016 President Xi Jinping addressed the Uzbek Parliament and spoke about the importance of deepening cooperation in medical care, as well as in the alert of communicable diseases, infection prevention and control. The World Health Organization endorsed the initiative at the beginning of 2017.
Domestic and international progress made over the last few years has been remarkable but not sufficient. Despite its technological advancement and transformation, China still constitutes an emerging economy.
The 2019 Global Health Security Index, which links relevant capabilities with the level of income, puts it in the 51st position out of 195 countries. Its score in the category of early detection and reporting on epidemics of potential international concern stood 13 positions lower.
The accuracy of the index was tested in real life with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Delays by Wuhan authorities in blocking the exit of residents from the city allowed COVID-19 to spread.
This was only the beginning of the crisis, though. The Chinese government then took unprecedented measures imposing lockdowns and preventing social contacts. Ironically, most other world countries preferred to politicize the debate about the disease instead of taking preventive measures to protect their citizens by drawing lessons from China’s experience.
The US, the UK and the EU, for instance, were entrapped in wishful thinking or finger-pointing as if the virus would respect borders. Even when COVID-19 struck Italy at the end of February, they failed to immediately take action.
It is understandable for governments to shape the debate on the novel coronavirus to satisfy domestic audiences, justify mistakes and strengthen their international positions. But attempts to exploit the pandemic for political purposes do not help the global fight.
What is worrying is that China and the US, which used to cooperate on health crises such as H1N1 and Ebola, do not demonstrate the usual willingness and are only making small steps limited to medical assistance. A political message of hope by Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping will encourage the international community desperately looking for hope.
The writer is a research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a senior fellow and lecturer at the European Institute of Nice and the Democritus University of Thrace.