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Solidarity in the Time of a Pandemic
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By Milos Rastovic

During the plague outbreak in Athens around 430 B.C.E., Thucydides, in The History of the Peloponnesian War, describes how the face of human nature changed: Honor was replaced by self-indulgence. People became desperate and lost their capacity for unified resistance to the plague. With the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19), we are witnessing similar difficulties as the nations of the world respond with varying degrees of readiness, effectiveness and caring in this crisis.

China has demonstrated the effectiveness of a determined, unified response to the COVID-19. In effect, China mobilized their entire country and its vast resources to contain the virus. They built mobile hospitals from scratch in Wuhan, the capital of Central Hubei province and epicenter of the pandemic. China directed thousands of healthcare workers and massive levels of medical supplies to the area, and quarantined Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, as a means of containing the virus there as much as possible. Other nations have replicated the quarantine model with similar results.

It is also notable that as the virus spread throughout the globe, China, not the European Union (EU), U.S. or other Western nations, took leadership in sharing expertise and resources. China sent healthcare experts and medical supplies to Italy and Spain, the most affected EU countries. At the same time, Germany, France and other EU nations turned a deaf ear to Italy's request for medical supplies needed to save citizens' lives by imposing export limits on medical supplies. When Chinese medical equipment was delivered to Italy, Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s Foreign Minister, said, “We are not alone, there are people in the world who want to help Italy.”[1] When the EU closed its borders and denied help to Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, China sent healthcare workers and medical aid there. Aleksandar Vucic, President of Serbia, said, “European solidarity does not exist . . . . That was a fairy tale on paper. . . . I believe in Chinese help.”[2]

Although under sanctions by the EU, Russia and Cuba also sent healthcare providers and medical aid to Italy.  According to Reuters, Russia sent at least 15 military planes with medical equipment and healthcare providers, as well as one planeload of humanitarian aid to New York. Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, said, “The arrival of a medical brigade from Cuba to Italy is pretty historic. You have a leading European nation accepting support in the form of a medical team from a small Caribbean island.”[3]

Without its own centralized healthcare system, the EU must rely on its individual members for responses in such crises. The EU simply does not have the appropriate resources and mechanisms available to respond to health crises in a unified, effective manner. It also does not have sufficient emergency supplies on hand to respond in a timely manner to quickly emerging health crises. In effect, the EU is dependent on the action of individual member nations or must import resources from outside the EU. By the Stability and Growth Pact, the European Union Commission (EUC) imposed austere fiscal restrictions on the budgets of the healthcare systems of member states after the 2009 financial crisis. Recently, the EUC made an unprecedented decision to activate “the general escape clause,” thereby allowing member states to spend “as much as they need.”[4]

The individual EU nation-states can declare a state of emergency, but not the EU as a body. Suspending the Schengen Agreement and closing national borders within the EU appears to have been successful in containing the pandemic. Oddly enough, the sovereignty of the individual EU nations, rather than the strength of the entire union, has become the most efficient means of protecting their citizens from the coronavirus. Moreover, Germany and Italy consider the law as a tool to protect their domestic strategic industries from foreign interests and ownerships regardless whether it is the EU or non-EU country. Peter Altmaier, German Minister of Economy, said: “We will avoid a sell-out of German economic and industrial concerns.”[5] Karl Marx’s thesis about the “withering away of the state” or the globalist’s ideal of the “state without boundaries” would seem to run contrary to the Hegelian idea of  a nation-state: “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.” In September 2019, President Trump affirmed the concept of the individual nation-state at the United Nations, when he stated, “The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens . . .”[6]

At the same time, the response of the United States to the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis has been reluctant and, quite simply, late. Today, the United States has more coronavirus cases than any other country. Its healthcare system is staggering under the limitations of insufficient medical supplies and other resources, due in no small part to the fact that the health system is based on a for-profit model, rather than one driven by the needs of people. A system based on profit never prepares adequately for dramatic, unanticipated increases in need, nor is it able to export significant volumes of medical supplies to other countries. Even though the U.S.  is more focused on domestic issues than international engagement at this time, it still should demonstrate more support for those countries who look to the U.S. as a world leader in times of great need. “This could be the first major global crisis in decades without meaningful U.S. leadership and with significant Chinese leadership,” said Rush Doshi, Director of the China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.[7]  The response to the coronavirus is demonstrating that the role of leadership and response abdicated by the U.S. is being filled capably and admirably by other nations.

For instance, Venezuela has a shortage of medical supplies and healthcare providers because of sanctions imposed by Western countries. When Venezuela requested help in addressing the coronavirus crisis, the U.S. refused to ease sanctions, and the International Monetary Fund dismissed the request.[8] Instead of demonstrating leadership and a broad world view in helping Venezuela to contain the pandemic, the U.S. exerted more pressure on it.[9]

Solidarity, friendship and mutual understanding among countries are ideals that should transcend monetary or political considerations. Willingness to help other nations, whether they are neighbor, allies or those with which we have profound disagreements, will speak eloquently to the capacity of the U.S., to fulfill its status as a world leader. Sending healthcare providers to the most affected areas of the world will help us to learn more about the virus, as much as show our ability to transcend geo-politics and respond to a pressing human crisis. By abdicating its status as a world leader in this crisis, the U.S. is not only losing face with the rest of the world, it is leaving the field to other nations who can and are stepping up to help others. Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was the first national government official to visit China after the outbreak there. China appreciated his gesture and delivered healthcare providers and medical aid to Serbia when the virus struck there. The crown of every true friendship is to try to understand and help in the struggle of others in a time of need.

History teaches us that after every world crisis, the world is faced with new challenges. Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, proposed an idea of a European “Marshall Plan,” similar to the U.S. plan which helped Europe to rebuild its economy after World War II.[10] The EU announced that they will apply 500 billion euros to assist with the economic recovery of its member states.[11] The pandemic has given the EU a chance to show unity, but instead they are fighting over how to allocate funds to its most vulnerable members.

Of all the outcomes to come out of this crisis, one of the most important and enduring ones may be to confirm the emergence of a multipolar world. China and Russia proved their sense of solidarity and seized the opportunity to strengthen their standing and credibility in the world order.  If it learns nothing else from this experience, the United States should recognize the need to re-examine its foreign policy agenda, the meaning of solidarity with other countries, and its leadership role in world affairs, as well as its domestic policy, which should work more for the benefit of its people.

Milos Rastovic is a Scholar-in-Residence at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA. I am a contributor to Politics (Politika), and has written for OxPol, World Policy Journal, and others. He presented his works at Columbia University, Cambridge University, Harvard University, and other universities. 

[1]Jamie Dettmer. “European Governments Shrug Off Brussels on Coronavirus.” Voice of America. March 24, 2020. https://www.voanews.com/science-health/coronavirus-outbreak/european-governments-shrug-brussels-coronavirus

[2]Gabriela BaczynskaLuke Baker. “EU Clutches at Bazooka to Stop Members Going it Alone on Coronavirus.” Reuters. March 16, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-eu-coordination/eu-clutches-at-bazooka-to-stop-members-going-it-alone-on-coronavirus-idUSKBN2133F5

[3]Amy Goodman. “’Humanitarian Solidarity:’ Even Under U.S. Sanction, Cuba Sends Doctor Brigade to Italy and More.” Democracy Now. March 24, 2020. https://www.democracynow.org/2020/3/24/cuba_medical_diplomacy_italy_coronavirus

[4] The European Commission. “Communication from the Commission to the Council.” Brussels. March 20, 2020. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/economy-finance/2_en_act_part1_v3-adopted_text.pdf

[5] Thomas Escritt, Christoph Steitz. “Germany will Block Foreign Takeovers to avoid the Economy sell-out.” Reuters. March 20, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-germany-fund/germany-will-block-foreign-takeovers-to-avoid-economy-sell-out-idUSKBN21717T

[6] The White House. “The Remarks by President Trump to the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.” September 25, 2019. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-74th-session-united-nations-general-assembly/

[7] Steven Lee Mayers & Allisa J. Rubin. "Its Coronavirus Cases Dwindling China Turns Focus Outward." New York Times, March 18, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/world/asia/coronavirus-china-aid.html

[8]Ana Vanessa Herrero & Anthony Faiola. “Venezuela’s Broken Health System is Uniquely Vulnerable to Coronavirus. Neighbors are Afraid the Country will Hemorrhage Infected Migrants.” The Washington Post. March 20, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/venezuela-coronavirus-health-hospital-maduro-guaido/2020/03/19/74ad110c-6795-11ea-b199-3a9799c54512_story.html

[9]Adam Taylor. “The Americas Maduro Indictment Maximum Pressure Coronavirus Trump Venezuela.” The Washington Post. March 27, 2020.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/maduro-indictment-maximum-pressure-coronavirus-trump-venezuela/2020/03/26/82809364-6f86-11ea-a156-0048b62cdb51_story.html

[10] Charlie Devereux & Jerrold Coltern. “Hospitals Swamps as Italy-Spain Virus  Deaths Surrpas 17,000.” Bloomberg. March 29, 2020.       https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-29/spain-reports-record-number-of-coronavirus-deaths-in-24-hours

[11] Euronews. “Coronavirus: EU Finance Ministries Agree on 500 billion euros on Emergency Fund.” April 10, 2020.     https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/09/coronavirus-eurogroup-finance-ministers-agree-on-500-billion-emergency-fund

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