One of the remarkable things about the Covid-19 crisis is that the whole world responded, at almost the same time and in very similar ways. This is unprecedented international co-ordination. Unfortunately, it means that the whole world economy has turned down at the same time and the economic consequences will be very severe, particularly for the poorest. The big question is whether we can continue to co-operate in this way to overcome the crisis and construct a better future.
We hear constant reports of the progress of the virus in Europe and the US, but what is to happen in the poorest countries? There were expectations that Africa, with poor sanitation and weak health systems, would suffer badly. But in a continent of 1.3 billion people – 17 percent of the world’s population – Africa accounts for only one percent of the number of infections and less than one percent of deaths. This is what led one Senegalese academic to comment, ‘The Europeans are worried about us, but we are worried about them’.
The African experience
The question is, why is the African infection rate so low? Is it lack oftesting, a youthful population, or the
fact that many countries locked down early? It is true that there is little testing but there is little sign of an outbreak of new illness and hospitals are not under unusual pressure. The most likely explanation is that the virus hasn’t spread in Africa yet. It is probable that it will take hold in the future. In the meantime, the economic shutdown has increased poverty and hunger. It is inevitable that the economic downturn will hurt the poorest countries most, and very likely that it will be with us for some considerable time to come. And in the slums, where 60 percent of Africa’s urban population live, and 1.6 billion people live worldwide, there is very poor sanitation, little opportunity for hand washing and very great overcrowding. If the virus takes hold in these communities the effect could be devastating. The reality is that if we wish to protect ourselves from a second and third wave of Covid-19 – and remember, after the First World War, the second wave of the Spanish flu was much more destructive than the first – we have to co-operate internationally. This is even more true of our need to address the more dangerous but slow burning crisis that is threatening us with massive catastrophe – climate change and ecological destruction, which, just like the virus, cannot be defeated in one country.
There was talk at the beginning of the crisis, of it bringing out the best in us. People were kind to neighbours and thought more deeply about the important things in life. Some dreamed that we would emerge with a kinder, gentler set of attitudes and that when it came to reconstruction, we might focus on reducing inequality and investing in a greener and more sustainable future. But as time has gone on, the hopeful voices have diminished and the dominant voices have been antagonistic and divisive. President Trump’s response to the virus is to blame China, create another Cold War and denounce the World Health Organisation. The WHO Director General may have praised China too much in the early stages and China was secretive at first, but then it shared the genome with scientists internationally. And the WHO, established in 1948, is the place where all the countries of the world come together to share knowledge and improve the health of people worldwide. Some of its notable achievements are the eradication of smallpox, the near eradication of polio, and a vaccine for Ebola. It is incredible to remember that President Roosevelt was the chief architect of the construction of the UN system after the Second World War and now the US, starting even before Trump, is consistently undermining it.
But it isn’t only Trump. In India Modi declared a lockdown while making no provision for workers in the informal economy. Millions were left with no income or food and some even died as they tried to walk home to their villages. Bolsonaro in Brazil denies that the virus is a threat and the number of infections keep growing. And the UK Government continually boasts about how much better we are than others, whilst in fact we have one of the highest death rates per capita in the world.
Hope and challenge
Looking forward, all hopes are pinned on a vaccine and massive efforts are taking place across the world to find one. But there is no guarantee that this will succeed. Enormous efforts were made to find a vaccine for HIV/Aids with no success. A vaccine was developed for SARS – which is a virus similar to Covid 19 – but it had such destructive side effects in animals it was taken no further. It was a virus more destructive than Covid-19 but it spread less rapidly and then disappeared. Perhaps that is our best, but unlikely, hope.
The biggest challenge the world faces is to co-operate both to defeat the virus and to escape the dangers of climate change. But the atmospherics are not good. The UK could play a constructive role in helping the world face up to this challenge. We will have to reconsider our foreign policy after Brexit and we are likely to find ourselves very lonely and without much of a role. The UK still has delusions of grandeur but, as was famously said by Dean Acheson in 1962, ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire but not yet found a role’. For a time, we saw ourselves as a bridge between the US and the EU but, whether or not this was real, clearly it is over. Clinging on to the US, as all prime ministers, apart from Edward Heath, have done since the Second World War, becomes ever more embarrassing with Trump at the helm.
The UK’s contribution to development is the one outstanding feature of our foreign policy. If we made the central objective of our foreign policy the struggle for international collaboration to create a more safe and sustainable world order, wouldn’t that be a country we could be really proud of?