By Arjun Joshi.
It would be so very easy for me to criticize Donald Trump’s domestic response to COVID-19. After all, the man dismantled the NSC infectious disease unit, cut CDC funding by 80%, actively refused to administer more testing to goose his approval ratings, and completely vacated any responsibility for this crisis. To call him a clown would be an insult to the good names of Pennywise and The Joker. But the fact of the matter is, and I have to hold down my bile while typing this, he’s not the only one who has blown the response to COVID-19. There has been a startling lack of international leadership in tackling this disease, as China only recently began sending supplies to other countries, the Iranian leadership has been decimated by infections, Boris Johnson tried to create a “business as usual” atmosphere until it was too late, and leaders in the Americas like Justin Trudeau and Jair Bolsonaro either have or are quarantining against it.
To be honest, I can’t necessarily fault any country in Asia for not leading a global effort to combat the virus. While China certainly has the stature to take some leadership globally, the People’s Republic of China has rarely taken a leadership stance on such issues. On the flipside, while smaller countries like South Korea and Singapore took the necessary precautions by cancelling public events and shutting down most international travel, the stature and influence of these nations is necessarily limited by their dependence on other countries economically and diplomatically. Meanwhile, Iran has been ravaged by the disease and, amazingly for a country facing pariah status in the west, has become a vector for the virus to travel internationally. From disturbing images of mass graves being dug to the insane levels of infection among the Iranian political elites, a country that has been the face of jihadist terror for many in the west has been struck by this disease to the point I’d seriously question Iran’s strength even as they target US soldiers in Iraq. While the circumstances of each of these countries varies wildly, the fact is that Asian nations have not taken a role in coordinating a global response to the virus.
Lest we judge Asia too harshly, let’s go to Europe next. Italy became the first case study on how to not tackle the disease. At last count, the country had almost 18,000 cases and 1,200 deaths, and the virus was allowed to spread because measure such as social distancing and the cancellation of public gatherings were not instituted until it was too late. While countries like Spain, Belgium, and France have recently begun to shut down public life and discourage public gatherings, the fact of the matter is that EU responses to the disease have been decentralized to the point that Italy shut down its border unilaterally, and there is yet to be proper coordination between member states. The only real leadership from the continent is once again from Angela Merkel, in her last year as German Chancellor and verified adult in the room. The Chancellor disturbingly placed the government’s long-held aversion to debt and deficit spending in the backseat, as she commented that containing COVID-19 has to take priority over financial policy and the banking crisis. This leadership should be applauded, but is once again limited to Germany as opposed to the wider EU and European continent.
Lest we attempt to let the UK off the hook, Boris Johnson has continued to espouse a “business-as-usual” attitude toward COVID-19, refusing to order the shutdown of public gatherings and schools until March 20. Considering this is the man who, according to the Guardian, called the mayor from Jaws his favorite character for sticking to his guns and not shutting the town down while tourists were eaten, I’m more disappointed than shocked with him. The kicker to this is that the Premier League has found several patients with the virus in its ranks, including the manager of Arsenal FC and a few players. If the US only started to take this seriously when Tom Hanks got sick, it’s only fair that Britain do the same for the footballers.
While South America and the Caribbean have only recently started to report and respond to cases of COVID-19, Brazil presents one of the more troubling cases for how not to handle this. Jair Bolsonaro’s government routinely dismissed the concerns over the virus, at which point his press secretary tested positive. While this would be troubling on its own, the situation became scary for Americans as we realized Bolsonaro and his staff had met Trump at Mar-a-Lago, with the press secretary in tow and both heads of state present. After himself getting tested, Bolsonaro has denied being COVID positive despite initial reports to the contrary by Brazilian media and Fox News. What concerns me most about this is that people outside of Bolsonaro’s circle have no way of confirming or denying the reports. If the initial reporting was correct, then the Brazilian President is waltzing around with an infectious disease and lying to everyone, putting himself and the entire government at risk. If Bolsonaro is telling the truth that he is healthy, it just gives him more ammunition to dismiss the disease and not respond to concerns among the wider Brazilian population. As it is, Brazil is at up to nearly 600 cases, and in all likelihood the number is higher due to underreporting from poorer and rural communities in the country. On the other end of Latin America, Mexico is supposedly contemplating closing the US border in a delightfully macabre twist. Considering both Mexico and Brazil are currently run by two very different strains of populist, which is inherently a domestically centered ideology, it wouldn’t make much sense to expect international leadership from either government. But Brazil still presents a jarring case, because not only have they not taken a leadership role in combating the virus, but have actively spat upon concerns and precautions against it.
I understand that it’s easy to dismiss this idea of “global leadership” as being important considering how each country is swamped by viral concerns. But this relative self-absorption has already had serious consequences for finding a cure for the disease. Individual areas around the world, most notably a university in the Philippines and the Cleveland Clinic separately built quicker testing kits that expedited the results within a day as opposed to the few days it took CDC manufactured kits. Private sector figures like Jackie Ma have donated masks and testing kits to the US, and in Canada and Germany labs are making headway in isolating the virus, the first step in forming a vaccine. But in all of these cases, there’s a downside that rears its ugly head. How come there wasn’t a more collaborative effort between international institutions to share testing kit plans, as this essentially means the Cleveland Clinic test is limited to the US and the Filipino test will be there as opposed to the rest of Asia? Jack Ma’s philanthropy should be applauded, but it also speaks to how unprepared the Americans have shown themselves to be where philanthropy from a foreign billionaire is not just welcome, but actively necessary for institutions here. The ugliest kicker of course belongs to President Trump, who supposedly offered $1 billion to a German company developing a cure, so as to exclusively distribute it to Americans. Forget irresponsible, it is flat out unethical to do that in a global pandemic, especially when the company isn’t even American and thus not initially obligated to help our government.
I don’t want people to forget the real consequences of this lack of coordination and leadership. People are dying in places like Iran and Italy where the medical systems have become overburdened. Countless people are probably infected but underreported in countries like India, Brazil, and the United States. People suffering from non-pandemic medical issues, such as cancer, are being forced out of hospital wards in some countries to treat more “urgent” COVID-19 cases. Even relatively non-life threatening issues, like college students being sent home early, have long-term impacts on people’s mental and physical well-beings, especially for students whose basic needs are not guaranteed at home and international kids who legally cannot return to their home countries. I raise the above issues not as a distraction, but so we understand who is responsible for our predicament. Every level of our current governments failed us: state, national and international institutions sat on their hands while the virus spread and disrupted everyone’s lives. When this is over, Zoomers are going to use “where did you quarantine” as the conversation starter to hide their frustration and trauma of having their educations and lives interrupted by this. When those conversations come up, I want everyone to remember that the only ways we’ll avoid disruptions of this magnitude again are by getting into government and maintaining the vigilance our elders failed to.