Covid : Is Global Co-operation Too Much to Ask?

May 09, 2020, 11:25 AM UTC

It’s rare in human affairs that an event occurs that affects the whole world. It was different for the dinosaurs, of course: they had the asteroid to contend with and it wiped them out. But most disasters in the human era have been what you might call ‘local’ and dealing with them has tended to be handled locally too. Covid, however, is a truly global crisis and you might have hoped that human beings would respond to it globally. But that is not what’s happening. Instead the big powers are blaming each other for causing the crisis and virtually going-it-alone in trying to find a way through. Is co-operation too much to ask?

The signs are that, with some exceptions, the Covid pandemic has levelled off and is beginning to recede. But it’s far too early to say that the virus has been beaten. That will depend on whether there is going to be a second spike and then maybe others after that. It was the second wave of Spanish flu at the end of 1918, not the first earlier in the year, that did the really big damage, causing somewhere between fifty million and a hundred million deaths worldwide. So we may yet have much worse in store for us.

Global problems require global solutions and global solutions require global co-operation. But that’s often easier said than done, as anyone who has followed the tortuous global attempts to tackle another global crisis, climate change, will attest. And sometimes it’s not even possible. Even the most selfless co-operation among the dinosaurs would not have saved them from an asteroid, fifty miles in diameter, hurtling at them with an impact energy a hundred million times the scale of the biggest nuclear weapon ever detonated and throwing up a dust cloud covering the entire Earth that entirely blocked out the sun for years and years. Covid is bad but it’s not that bad.

We have a vast amount of knowledge as to how to combat its effects and stop it spreading. Yet we are largely failing to co-operate in doing so. Indeed many of the world’s political leaders seem to be at each other’s throats instead.

That is certainly the view of Theresa May, the woman who was still Britain’s prime minister but a year ago. She wrote an article in The Times on Wednesday in which she regretfully remarked that ‘researchers and scientists may work together across the world but there is little evidence of politicians doing so’. She went on: ‘A polarised politics has taken hold. It views the world through a prism of winners and losers and sees compromise and co-operation as signs of weakness. Lost is the idea that countries do better by working together to solve common problems, even if doing so sometimes means an apparent sacrifice of short-term benefit for the greater good.’ Such an unappealing approach, she said, preceded the appearance of Covid: already China had been ‘flexing its muscles’ and ‘a US president was elected on a mandate of America First’. The result has been ‘our inability to forge a coherent international response’ to Covid.

It is hard to dispute this account of what’s been going on. The two rivalrous superpowers, China and America, have each blamed the other for starting the pandemic. The Chinese foreign ministry, on the basis of no apparent evidence whatsoever, claimed the virus originated in the United States. The Americans, with much more evidence to justify their claim, say it began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But President Trump has gone one further claiming its origins lay not in the food markets of the city (as most people believe) but that he has ‘seen evidence’ that the source was a Chinese government virus laboratory in the city (leaving his listeners to infer that the Chinese may have been deliberately up to something). Even his own scientific advisers and the American security services have made clear they think the President is talking through his hat.

As for trying to come up with a vaccine to inoculate the world’s population from the virus, the two great powers are also refusing to co-operate. There are a hundred separate initiatives going on worldwide to find and manufacture a Covid vaccine and a coalition of many developed countries has formed to co-ordinate the effort. But the United States has opted out, undertaking its own taxpayer-funded initiative, called Warp Speed. China too has said ‘thanks but no thanks’ and is beavering away at its own vaccine.

Meanwhile the British and American security services issued a joint report earlier this week claiming that state-backed hackers were launching cyberattacks on research institutions linked to Covid vaccine research in an attempt to steal their secrets. They cited China, Russia and Iran as countries behind these cyberattacks.

So why, instead of co-operation in response to a global threat, should there be this mounting mutual antagonism? The conventional answer would be that national interests always trump (forgive the pun) global interests. And that may be the case here. But it’s not easy to see what national interest would be so paramount as to count more than the obvious benefit to everyone, including the countries involved in the antagonism, of co-operating to see off the virus. It’s true that there are commercial advantages, and potentially big ones, in being the first to come up with a vaccine. And there would be added national prestige in doing so. But if the price of that is that the vaccine takes longer to discover and manufacture and more people die in the meantime, including nationals of those countries intent on pursuing a purely nationalist response to the crisis, then it seems a bit self-defeating.

Maybe, therefore, an explanation for this lack of cooperation can be found in something even narrower than national self- interest. For countries like China, Russia and Iran, governed by authoritarian regimes, that narrower interest would seem to be the survival of those authoritarian regimes themselves. No doubt they all persuade themselves that the national interest is synonymous with the interest of regime survival but we can be pretty sure that even if they didn’t, buttressing their own power would take first priority.

That would explain, for example, why the Chinese government resolutely refuses all requests to co-operate with or even allow a dispassionate international inquiry into the origins of Covid. Such an inquiry might come up with conclusions that would be embarrassing for the ruling regime and undermine its legitimacy among the Chinese people. We have already seen the lengths the Chinese government is prepared to go to in order to ‘bury bad news’. The young doctor, Li Wenliang, who first tried to raise the alarm that a viral epidemic was breaking out in his home city of Wuhan was rounded up by the police, charged with spreading false rumours and forced to recant. His truthfulness was too much for the regime. Soon afterwards he himself died of the disease.

Such an explanation, of regime survival, might easily be said to apply to President Trump as well. The main focus of his interests is clearly getting re-elected in the presidential election this November. His strategy for succeeding had been to ride the coat-tails of economic growth and prosperity. But Covid has put paid to that: the American economy, like every other economy, is in free-fall. So what alternative strategy is available to him? The tried and tested one is to fire voters up with outrage at the behaviour of a wicked and dangerous enemy who must be confronted and who will only be vanquished if the people re-elect the leader who has spotted the terrible danger in the first place. China, the source of Covid (and even, maybe, the deliberate source) fits the bill perfectly. That, Mr Trump hopes, will be what the election will now be about and his challenger, Joe Biden, is having to play by much the same script. In the light of these other ‘interests’, global co-operation is off the table.

“But of course!” you might say. “It has ever been thus. It doesn’t matter whether political leaders are democratic, authoritarian, or plain and simple dictators, their own interests always come way before any others. Theresa May was in the game herself. She’s not wet behind the ears. That she was spouting all this idealistic stuff about global co-operation in The Times says no more than that she’s now an elder statesperson who will never have responsibilities again and so can afford to come over all virtuous and idealistic. It’s what elder statespeople do.”

Well, maybe. But is it quite fair or even accurate? Global co-operation is, certainly, an ideal and it’s one that often stumbles at the first hurdle. That very idealistic president, Woodrow Wilson, emerged from the horrors of the First World War determined to make sure it never happened again by formalising global co-operation in the institution of the League of Nations. It foundered from the start when the American Congress refused to allow his country to join it.

But there have been occasions when a global crisis has elicited a genuine global response that has been effective, at least to some extent. The Second World War produced the United Nations which, over seventy-five years later, is still with us. Innumerable criticisms can be made of it (and have been) but it is still making a difference, as Mrs May pointed out in her article. And if one of her predecessors as prime minister, Gordon Brown, were to join the conversation he would immediately cite the example of the global financial crisis of 2008 and the global plan to deal with it which he organised and which he pushed through the G20 summit he chaired the following year. Global co-operation is possible.

So is global co-operation in the face of global danger too much to ask? And, if it isn’t, how do we secure it? That, however, is a much more difficult question to answer.

What’s your view? Let us know.