Is the world ever going to be the same again? It can’t be. COVID 19 is the canary in the coal mine.
It’s changing the power balance between traditional “superpowers”. The USS Theodore Roosevelt, a 5,000 person aircraft carrier patrolling the South China Sea, was forced to emergency dock for testing in Guam as more than two dozen crew tested positive for the virus. There is no timeline for when the ship will be back in service.
The US was reduced to name calling “the Chinese or Wuhan virus” instead of using its scientific name, while China is busily shoring up its allies and global reputation by sending medical supplies and personnel to Pakistan on the heels of previous shipments of ventilators and masks. It donated $20 million to the World Health Organization (WHO) and has sent, or is sending millions of masks, test kits and other items to Serbia, Liberia, Italy, Czech Republic and the Philippines. The US and China are each accusing each other of mishandling the COVID 19 outbreak and calling into question the origins of the virus…a global chest-thumping-name-calling game of “it’s your fault”.
Combine this loss of world position for these superpowers and a preoccupation with whose fault this is with the parking of usual issues. Brexit? Opioid Crisis? Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial? US/Iran sanctions and relations? What have any of us heard about these lately? Do we even care?
Not so much. It’s hard not to think about the future. Especially when we’re all confined to barracks. It’s hard not to let one’s mind wander. It’s clear to me we need greater international cooperation at a time when we don’t have the mechanisms to deliver it. We have a climate breakdown, and no pun intended, we don’t have the international climate to support our ability to do much about it.
Observers who follow these issues more closely than me have said while the relief agencies of the United Nations and the WHO do effective work, the United Nations itself is plagued with the rise of nationalism and resultant divisions between its members. Our world order is permeated with a culture that has been growing since the early 1980’s that favours individual competition within nation-sates over cooperation. It’s not just the US being great, it’s our traditional G7 partners where a rise in nationalist sentiment has seen a rise in either the performance of those parties, or the election of leaders that promote nationalistic agendas. This mitigates against cooperative action.
The world needs to be different and the world order shouldn’t be the same again. Where we have the luxury of social distancing to try to protect our health systems from being overwhelmed, there are equally more people in regions that will never have that luxury. Africa has struggled with several Ebola virus outbreaks since 1976 and there is still no vaccine. The more deadly outbreak in 2014-15 in West Africa has been attributed to more closely grouped people due to roads, deforestation and urbanization.
What about parts of the world where health systems have been weakened by sustained conflict? Syria and its refugee camps? What about the long-standing Israel Palestine conflict? By any estimate, between one and two million Palestinians are crowded into the Gaza strip which has been likened to an “outdoor prison”.
How will COVID 19 flourish in those environments? It’s scary to think about. I’ll say it again: COVID 19 is our canary in a coal mine. It’s not a perfect metaphor…COVID 19 is small, but it’s far from innocent. But our global response to it can be prophetic for our long-term survival. Stay home for your families and your local communities. But stay home because you are fortunate to have that choice and social distancing is a luxury that not all have.
When this is all over, we have to realize we share one small planet. It’s time to start thinking and acting that way.