Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst currently in Portugal
The irony is hard to ignore. As China, believed to be the source of COVID-19, slowly roars back to life after imposing the largest national response to a health crisis in human history, the world economy is screeching to a halt. This comes as the virus circulates on all continents except Antarctica.
Add the knock-on effect on global supply chain disruption caused by China’s massive shutdown and you cannot blame business owners worldwide who are trying to contain their incredulity.
The prospects for the weeks and months ahead for the global economy is trending badly: one-third of IMF member states are now reporting coronavirus cases. Its managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, said at a press conference Wednesday that, with the virus spreading more undetected than initially thought, the world has moved “into the territory of more dire scenarios.”
With fear and panic spreading – supply chains are being restricted, consumers are purchasing and travelling less and credit is becoming more difficult to come by – world economic growth this year will dip below that of 2019, the IMF says.
Meanwhile, restarts of factories in China is currently at 60 per cent and will surge to 90 per cent in a few days time.
Perhaps in a demonstration of might – or maybe as a gesture of payback for draconian measures by foreign countries that were placed on Chinese nationals – Beijing announced this week that it will slap restrictions on travellers to China.
In early 2020, when countries began closing their borders to travellers from China, the country’s foreign ministry said: “Some countries, the U.S. in particular, have inappropriately overacted.”
For its part, World Health Organization (WHO) seems to agree that member states are acting inappropriately or disproportionately by, for example, erecting trade and travel restrictions, against the organization’s own guidelines. And with major events being cancelled around the globe, governments and companies also seem to be ignoring WHO advice against literally shutting down the world. Even the Tokyo 2020 Olympics may be postponed.
My fear is that with epidemics occurring more frequently – there have been at least three since 2003 – WHO’s moral authority is eroding to the point where we lose the ability to mount a co-ordinated global public health response to epidemics and pandemics. And rather than pro-actively investing in public health systems where testing or surveillance capabilities are high, many countries focus more on containment and mitigation measures.
The world is facing another challenge: many of the 40 or so countries identified by WHO as having fragile health systems are starting to report cases. And these countries, such as Nigeria, Senegal, Ukraine and Algeria all land on the Global Health Security Index as being less prepared.
Even countries with relatively robust health systems have regional disparities which deny people proper access to care.
Earlier this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described coronavirus as “influenza on steroids.” But it is much more than that. It could mark the start of a new chapter in modern history where global solidarity is significantly tested.
For example, a few weeks ago, it would have been hard to imagine that some European Union member states would call for suspension of the open-border Schengen Area, one of the cornerstones of the bloc. Far-right parties in Germany, Spain and France are calling for invoking a clause in the EU law which allows for the temporary closure of national frontiers in emergencies. While difficult – the bridge near me linking Portugal with Spain has no border control points – a simple barricade could do the trick.
A U.S. airline executive said that the fear caused by the outbreak could cause more harm than the virus itself. But in many countries, citizens’ trust in government is abysmally low, and the introduction of a patchwork quilt of measures – some justified and others not – has made it difficult to envision a quick or smooth ending to this global public health crisis.
I’ve a strong sense that this crisis – whether measured by the number of infections or the degree of economic dislocation inflicted by it – will get a lot worse before it gets better. A good indication of the indifference is how abysmally underfunded WHO’s emergency appeal is, as of today.
What is needed most of all right now is political leadership on steroids: elected leaders working together to treat the virus for what it is, a grave threat not only to public health but also to economic well-being. And until that happens, expect more cases, more panic.
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