As the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic shifts from China to the developed West, all too many rich countries are acting selfishly, invoking the ‘national interest’, by banning exports of vital medical supplies.
US President Donald Trump has reportedly gone further by seeking exclusive rights to a future coronavirus vaccine, although the report has been denied by a German drug company and some investors believed to be involved.
Following France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland now also want to ban the export of certain types of protective equipment and gear, prompting Stella Kyriakides, the EU Health Commissioner, to contradict them, insisting instead that “Solidarity is key”.
Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, also appealed to EU governments to reconsider their export restrictions on medical supplies, including personal protective equipment for frontline health workers.
Nevertheless, the EU has since announced export restrictions on medical supplies needed for the COVID-19 pandemic to countries outside the European single market, ignoring earlier pledges when developing countries were reluctant to commit to EU-promoted ‘free trade’.
This EU response may trigger export restrictions by non-EU countries which now have little reason not to turn to China and other ‘non-traditional’ suppliers instead. After all, the EU imports US$17.6 billion of medical products, the category it has now imposed export controls on.
Furthermore, supply chains for European medical equipment production, such as ventilation machines produced in Germany and Switzerland, use parts that cross the EU’s external borders, sometimes more than once.
Meanwhile, some major developing countries have retaliated with similar measures, with India and China restricting medical equipment exports. Although India has reversed some restrictions on mask exports, allowing some to go to China, export bans remain on 26 pharmaceutical ingredients and some products made with them, such as paracetamol.
Already, export bans have widened to some essential non-medical products, e.g., with Kazakhstan banning some key food exports since 22 March. However, such moves are ultimately short-sighted and self-defeating as COVID-19 contagion knows no borders.
It is also in the rich world’s self-interest to help poor countries, just as imperial powers were once very concerned about infectious diseases, such as malaria, in their colonies which threatened to damage their own interests in the longer term.
Solidarity, not isolation
Dangerously, such selfish moves are politically attractive, with Trump’s approval ratings hitting an all-time high. Much of the US public agrees with Trump blaming China for the COVID-19 outbreak, with some senior UK Tory politicians joining the chorus, warning that China will face ‘a reckoning’ over it.
With the Western media seeing commercial and strategic considerations as behind all China’s actions, much of the North views China’s offers of help with great suspicion as ‘medical diplomacy’.
To the consternation of US and UK leaders, China’s offers of cooperation have been welcomed by most of the developing world and many in the developed world as well.
As soon as available in early January, China shared its findings on the genetic sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing COVID-19. This has allowed researchers around the world to study how it makes people sick, and to quickly work on testing, tracing, treatment and prevention.
At last week’s Saudi-convened virtual G20 emergency meeting, China announced it will increase its supplies to international markets of active pharmaceutical ingredients, daily necessities and other supplies to cope with the pandemic.
Other developing countries are also offering to help despite their own limited means. India has offered rapid response teams and other expertise to deal with the crisis in the region besides offering US$10 million to start an emergency South Asian regional fund to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
Despite suffering from US-led sanctions for six decades, with its record of sending medical teams to scores of developing countries, Cuba has joined China in sending doctors and nurses to Italy, and even to its former imperial ruler, Spain, in humanitarian solidarity.
Crisis of humanity
As many observers, even Time magazine, have emphasized, the Covid-19 crisis is not just one of health and the economy, but also has other dimensions. Covid-19 is already challenging our assumptions about humanity, about society, about greed and selfishness, about the need to cooperate.
The pandemic has exposed fault lines in trust among humans, among groups, among countries, between citizens and governments, and faith in many of our assumptions about life, not only beliefs and humanity, but also knowledge itself.
Thankfully, many of us still recoil in disbelief, shock and despair when we learn of those already infected who put others at risk, who ruin, destroy and compromise society’s already modest, inadequate existing health capacities through their selfish behaviour.
Meanwhile, as with global warming deniers, a number of leaders and others with influence see the COVID-19 crisis as a minor blip, a temporary interruption before returning to ‘business as usual’, following a V-shaped recovery.
We are beginning to doubt social media and many other previously trusted sources of information and knowledge, as we slowly realize that we are inundated with fake news, information and advice, not least by those we have become accustomed to trust, including family and friends.
We are learning that purported ‘solutions’ often ultimately come from those with agendas of their own, resulting in self-interested promotion of egos, influence or business opportunities, e.g., to sell medical supplies or some other really or purportedly needed ‘solutions’, items and services.
We also need to begin to address and come to terms with what life is going to be like after we get past the lockdowns and other ‘inconveniences’ imposed by the virus and its consequences.
This time, it is different, really different. And we will not be able to simply revert to ‘business as usual’ after we get over this crisis.
By beginning to think about the desirable, we must also consider the realm of the possible, and address the probable or the likely to strive to ensure that post-COVID-19 life will also be more secure, equitable, inclusive and sustainable.