Whilst the whole world comes to a halt with the pandemonium caused by coronavirus, China could seek to expand its influence across the globe. This particular phase of history could determine International Relations in the coming years.
One of humanity’s biggest enemies, since time immemorial, has been infectious diseases. Early civilisation lived in the vile mentality of falling ill one day and dying the next. One of the most popularly recorded history of a virulent outbreak has been that of the so called “Black Death”. Originating somewhere in the middle of East or Central Asia in the early half of the 14th century, the bacterium spread all over Asia, Europe and North Africa, claiming between 80 million to 200 million lives in the process. The religious authorities were rendered helpless; often holding mass prayers to various gods. The scientific revolution hadn’t hit the shores of Europe till mid-16th century and for a large part, humans blamed diseases to have been the wrath of angry gods or demons, completely oblivious to the concept of bacteria and viruses that a drop of water carried.
The proliferation of scientific breakthroughs over the years has helped scientists understand the root causes of epidemics, thereby making it a possibility to fight them. In a war between pathogens and doctors, the latter has prevailed. Every time a virus proliferates en masse, a healthy medical structure in the form of vaccines, antibiotics and improved sanitation has allowed humanity to come out on top, albeit injured.
Every decade, a neo “Black Plague’’ hits us. SARS in 2002/03 which claimed around 800 lives globally, bird flu in 2005 with a death toll in the hundreds, swine flu in 2009 with nearly 3 million deaths and finally Ebola with a little less than 30,000. The pages of world endemic history have a lot to offer. And the ones mentioned above are just the ones that I faced in my life time as an ignorant young boy, wondering why my mother didn’t allow me to go outside.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the coronavirus as a “Public Health Emergency of National Concern”, with already around 4.5 million reported cases and 20,000 deaths caused. However, if there is one thing that we must learn as a community about pandemic is that humanity always prevails. The larger (and more uncomfortable) question to ask is; at what cost?
As the world grapples with the hysteria, nation states find themselves at a critical juncture. By the time we completely get out of the pandemic, the world would have presumably changed. Social structures would be rewritten, the economic meltdown would need to be stitched again and multilateralism’s future would no longer be ambiguous. At a time when the entire globe has come to a halt, the world is grappling for a leader who will give the people an ideal to strive for; a visionary lodestar to guide through this period of uncertainty before normalcy returns.
Indeed, these are confusing times. Yet, the biggest brunt would be borne by the International Relations scientists as they scratch their heads over the response various countries are employing to the crisis. As compared to the last major outbreak in the form of the Ebola virus that erupted in West Africa, this time around, there is no US leadership to steer the ship. US’ foreign policy, circulating around the axis of ‘America First’ has resulted in a massive void right at the centre of the International System.
A common phenomenon being noticed since the outbreak of the virus has been countries becoming even more inward looking in nature. At a time of hyper globalization, this would have various negative repercussions in the global order. A major point of study has been that of medical masks. Previously considered of low value, the medical masks have become a commodity of extreme importance over the past couple of weeks. And it is through the trade of these commodities that countries have started exhibiting their true tribal instincts.
As I recently found out at the grocery store, it is bad enough already when people start stocking up on essentials. When governments do the same, in bulk numbers, on medical necessities, it could prove to be fatally catastrophic. That is essentially what has been happening over the past couple of months ever since the outbreak took place. According to the recently furbished report produced by Global Trade Alert, 24 nations have taken measures to ban or limit the export of medical equipment since the turn of this year, with 16 of those export banning nations joining the bandwagon in March. In economic parlance, a beggar-thy-neighbour atmosphere is being summoned. Countries are, just like Mr Malik at the grocery store, storing up for domestic consumption.
Countries such as Germany, often touted as the man on the helm of steering the European Union to greener pastures has prohibited the export of masks. Earlier this month, they stopped a delivery of about 240,000 masks to a Swiss Buyer. France too, who along with the Germans have claimed a major chunk of responsibility for the EU, recently have seized on all masks. This has cut through the very fabric of the EU, which is often seen as a torchbearer for a single market free trade zone between its member states.
The Director General of the WHO argued that “we can’t stop COVID-19 without protecting health workers” and the outbreak of the virus in Italy serves as the battleground. With death tolls having surpassed China, the northern towns of Codogno and Casale – both in the northern region of Lombardy – have witnessed around 40% of the doctors to be quarantined or hospitalised. According to a report by Gruppo Italiano per La Medicina Basata sulle Evidenze, around 8.3% of Italy’s reported coronavirus cases are healthcare workers. This paints a grim picture for humankind’s fight against the virus, and with most of the EU countries washing off their hands from helping a fellow member state during its time of distress, multilateralism looks like something from the Stone Age.
And it is here where China has stepped in. Just like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where Germany and other countries of the EU have failed to come to the aid of Italy, an unlikely savior in the form of China has come to its revival. Where Rome’s request was being rejected by the EU states, China meanwhile sent a team of nine Chinese medical staff along with 30 tonnes of medical equipment. The lack of solidarity displayed by its EU brethren could play a major role in shifting Italy’s (and the world at large) stance towards China. Having already inked itself to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, complemented by China’s active response to Italy’s crisis, this could open the floodgates to a new China led post pandemic order.
The rhetoric offered by US over the past few weeks has gone from denial (“hysteria is a hoax”) through blame (“China has to pay for this”) to finally, it’s most preferred terse of isolationism (reaffirmed by Peter Navarro, Director of Trump’s Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy). At a time when countries are withdrawing from the international order, a helping hand can be seen as a major tool to expand its influence and China seems to know this all too well. When the dust finally settles in the battle against the Virus and it will, we might just witness a mystic change in reality shifting from the West to the East. I might not have lived at the times of war when global orders were being dismantled and rewritten, but this could just maybe serve to be the inflection point of this century. Every crisis seems to offer an opportunity and what started off as the Wuhan Crisis might as well end up serving as Wuhan’s opportunity.
Sahil Philip is a 2nd-year student pursuing a bachelors in Global Affairs at OP Jindal Global University.