Over 23 million people worldwide have been infected by the COVID-19 disease. Nevertheless, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom is optimistic that the health crisis will end within two years. But as the pandemic rages on, peoples and countries are gradually adapting to the new normal.
During the initial days of the pandemic, some expressed hope that the world would come together to fight the common enemy—like COVID-19—given its visible and immediate consequences. Instead, there was a rise of national egoisms and intensified conflicts all over the world, preventing an efficient joint response. The pandemic has made all existing domestic and international weaknesses clear and visible. It has precipitated an economic crisis, deepened political chaos and environmental problems, and exposed healthcare system deficiencies in most countries.
There are several angles to consider when discussing the global impact of the pandemic. First, although countries initially considered joining forces to mitigate the risks from the virus, this was soon superseded by growing global turbulence and enhanced confrontation—rising tensions between the US and China, border clashes between India and China, US-Iran jostling over the nuclear deal, continued tensions in the West Asia region, among others.
Another important issue to consider is the US’s abandonment of its global leadership position, and the ensuing chaos, confusion and disappointment among allies and others alike. While Washington did not show any empathy for—or willingness to take on the financial burden of—other countries during the crisis, Beijing—the next potential ‘big power’—was not seen as reliable or appropriate to take on the global leadership mantle. China’s moves to assist other countries tackle the pandemic—which originated in Wuhan—were met with suspicion.
Finally, a major collateral consequence of the pandemic is the re-ideologisation of international politics, with geopolitical opponents being blamed primarily as a political tool. For instance, over the past few months, the US has actively blamed the Communist Party of China for the pandemic, presenting it as intent on destroying the very essence of American values and lifestyle.
At the same time what exacerbated a bad situation is the lack of trust on all levels—between allies, in multilateral institutions and in government. Externally, there is a growing divide between close allies. Seemingly neutral areas like the internet or financial systems have seen new ideas, such as China and Russia intensively working on their own payment systems for integration within the BRICS over fears of being cut off from the SWIFT financial system. International guarantees, obligations and agreements no longer glue the system. There is deep uncertainty over the future of the disarmament regime after the expiration of the START 3 (a US-Russian arms agreement) in 2021, since the Open Skies Treaty is already compromised and Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces deal having been killed as well.
At the citizen level, the lack of trust has led to bloody protests and Black Lives Matter movement in the US, which spilled over to Europe; a tense situation in Hong Kong with China’s controversial moves, among others. While the core causes for these and other citizen-led movements are different, it cannot be ignored that the pandemic has placed a heavier burden on the general public, allowing for the unrest to ignite faster.
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a big impact on the upcoming US presidential elections. The US has seen over 5.5 million people being infect by the virus, and over over 175,000 deaths. Even though US President Donald Trump’s economic packages allowed for those who lost their jobs during the pandemic to receive extra unemployment benefits, socio-economic hardships will likely be the determining factor in the presidential polls, and of Trump’s electoral fate. Yet, neither Republicans nor the Democrats have a strategy to come out of the crisis. At the recent Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden appealed to the American people as a “warrior of the light” to fight the ‘knight of darkness” (Trump), with some ideas for the economy but not much else. The problem with both political parties is that they look into and appeal to the past but do not propose innovative solutions to systemic problems.
COVID-19 has also caused a shift from hard security issues to socio-economic and humanitarian factors. Non-military issues have become sensitive topics for most countries, and the race to announce a COVID-19 vaccine is the newest addition to international politics. Russia raised the stakes by claiming to have registered the world’s first vaccine (named Sputnik V).
New technologies and digitalisation are also areas for rivalries among countries and national security concerns to play out. The US’s decision to sanction Chinese tech giants ZTE and Huawei, its addition of 38 companies to the BIS Entity List, and potential ban of Chinese apps like TikTok or WeChat must be seen in this light. India too has banned several Chinese apps over national security concerns. This complements China’s restrictions of Google and Facebook, and the overall functioning of the Great Firewall. Although the tech race is not new, the issue has gained recognition amid the pandemic as digital technologies were the only way to continue any sort of communication and activity—e-commerce, e-learning, videoconferencing or telemedicine—during the worldwide lockdown.
Crucially, the pandemic has also demonstrated the lack of systemic and credible responses from the existing international institutions. There have been tussles among the G7 nations over the US’s plan to invite India, Australia, Russia and South Korea to the summit. At the same time, the WHO has drawn a lot of flak over its handling of the pandemic, with the US refusing to pay and then moving to leave the organisation, and Brazil threatening to do the same, even as other countries agreed that reform was needed. Although the BRICS New Development Bank should be commended for assisting member states in their fight against COVID-19, a 2018 initiative to create a joint vaccine center has not been realised, even during the current pandemic. The BRICS grouping still has the opportunity to offer new solutions to this unprecedented crisis at the upcoming summit, else it risks becoming another inefficient institution.
The pandemic has laid bare the societal illnesses of our global community. Existing instruments and pills will not help to cure the patient, instead doctors need drastic upskilling. Innovative solution need to be complemented by a willingness and commitment to make them work. Are we ready for that?
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