OP-ED

Covid-19 is a global crisis – but also an opportunity for new co-operation

By Paul Zilungiale Tembe and Jeffrey Sehume 20 April 2020

Medical supplies from Shanghai to help with the coronavirus pandemic sit on the tarmac at Fiumicino airport, Rome. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Italian Red Cross handout)

Globalisation means that all countries are interlinked and interdependent. Covid-19 underlines this mutually assured dependence which, if it is ignored or neglected, assures mutual destruction for everyone. Respectful engagement and dialogue are more important than casting blame and resorting to stereotypes.

Moments of crisis usually produce negative or positive responses in countries, organisations and individuals. Negative responses can vary between denial, anger, numbness and blame-assigning. Positive reactions fluctuate between acceptance of and learning from the circumstance and acting accordingly to move forward.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a global crisis that has changed life and livelihoods completely. As an epochal event, it is also a moment which offers opportunities for the human species to relearn and refocus how we relate to each other and with the ecosystem (link of living organisms and the environment) responsible for all life on our planet. It would be a wasted crisis if the post-Covid-19 world returns to the old ways which are responsible, in the first place, for the emergence of a global health/economic pandemic.

There is now an urgent need to prioritise mutual dependence between countries and regions. Globalisation means that all countries are interlinked and interdependent. The rise and impact of Covid-19 underlines this mutually assured dependence which, if it is ignored or neglected, assures mutual destruction for everyone. Respectful engagement and dialogue are more important than casting blame and resorting to stereotypes.

Failure to prioritise dialogue and mutual dependence makes it easy for narrow nationalism (deglobalisation) and separatist ideologues to rise and bloom. The blame-game politics practised and perfected by the 45th president of the United States of America, Donald Trump, are a case in point of risky short-termism which can only produce negative results.

What is needed to deal decisively with Covid-19 is shared solidarity between and within countries. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, is at pains to remind all of us, “the fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” whether it is a war fought with armaments, trade, sanctions or rhetoric.

Shared solidarity is behind Cuba’s health diplomacy, namely its medical “army of white robes”, sent to Europe, Latin America and Africa in the past few weeks. Shared solidarity explains Russia’s recent humanitarian aid (medical supplies) dispatched to New York, the US epicentre of the coronavirus. Shared solidarity accounts for China’s international assistance, ventilators and personal protective equipment sent to Ethiopia and South Africa as they wage a noble war against a zoonotic disease initially transmitted from animals to humans.

These commendable acts of generosity and co-operation are not only admittedly an extension of soft power, but strike at the heart of our globalised world, where the notion of a butterfly effect rings true. An infectious disease that emerged in one province, Wuhan, has produced calamitous non-linear effects in every corner of the globe. As a consequence, there can never be a return to “normality” or even the “new normal” as was the case after the 2008 global financial downturn. Covid-19 has now upended all sectors of society ranging from policy-making, healthcare, education and travel to economics.

Equally, multilateral developmental and financial institutions like Bretton Woods, in order to become relevant and legitimate especially in the Global South, must undergo a transformational overhaul. The significance of the World Health Organisation has grown an additional layer of prominence to deal with a worldwide collision of epidemics and pandemics including non-communicable diseases and the coronavirus. Therefore, it is a false dichotomy that governments have to choose between nationalist priorities and globalisation demands. Multipolarity forces mutual alliances and cooperation between ideological rivals and marshalling shared responses to dealing with crises caused by human greed and hubris in the Anthropocene Era.

 

This disease that travels without a passport, to paraphrase former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, offers us an opportunity to reconfigure our relations with each other and relationships with our biodiversity (animal and plant life) such as banning wet markets which provide fertile linkages between the sale of exotic or illegal wildlife and human diseases.

 

It is fatalistic and short-termist to resort to blame-gaming, by isolating a few incidents of discrimination in China of African migrants, as an example of racism by the Chinese government and its people. While such incidents are indeed deplorable, they do not amount to a pattern of official racism.

In any crisis such as the one presented by the coronavirus, it would be naïve not to expect jingoistic attitudes and behaviours. Human behaviour is prone, in an unfamiliar crisis, to resort to perceived external enemies. But it becomes a problem when such chauvinism or narrow patriotism morphs into government policy and group action. Then it is indistinguishable from unconcealed actions of xenophobia, racism, neo-colonialism, and fascism.

Common prosperity is now a non-negotiable in relations between and within the proverbial Global South and Global North. This is emphasised since, in the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping, “each civilisation is the crystallisation of human creation” and “self-isolation will cause a civilisation to decline, while exchanges and mutual learning will sustain its development”.  

This disease that travels without a passport, to paraphrase former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, offers us an opportunity to reconfigure our relations with each other and relationships with our biodiversity (animal and plant life) such as banning wet markets which provide fertile linkages between the sale of exotic or illegal wildlife and human diseases.

As such, a post-coronavirus world should, ideally, be one where priority is placed on precarity in the job sector as a way of life, where so-called low skilled persons are treasured. As former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reminded us, Covid-19 presents us with a real choice between valuing either a billionaire hedge fund manager or a refuse collector and a nurse. The reality before us is one where artisans, a gig economy, and lifelong learning must be primarily factored in by governments, industry, and civil society.      

In the final analysis, the coronavirus is a historic reminder for governments to halt biodiversity loss, protect our ecosystem, implement without fail the Paris Climate Accord and localise the Sustainable Development Goals. For us in South Africa, we cannot but now implement post-haste the aspects of the National Development Plan championing the green revolution and sustainable livelihoods.

Covid-19 presents an opportunity to, as China’s President Xi says, build a “common health community for humanity”. Equally, the coronavirus is a crisis masked as an opportunity – as President Cyril Ramaphosa said when announcing measures to combat Covid-19 – to take “no half measures” since if “we act together, if we act now, and if we act decisively, we will overcome it”. DM

Professor Paul Tembe is a researcher at the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute and Jeffrey Sehume is a contracted civil servant.

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