Efem Nkam Ubi, Acting Director General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs

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Covid-19 calls for global cooperation not blame war 11 Jun 2020


A virtual meeting of leaders of the G20 economies on the Covid-19 pandemic

As the coronavirus disease outbreak continues to spread, some countries have been playing the blame game, which has unfortunately escalated into a Covid-19 "blame war." Understandably, a lot of countries are frustrated by a disease that has continued to take heavy human, economic – and potentially political – tolls. The United States of America, the world's largest economy, is by far the hardest-hit nation by the virus. More than 1.8 million people were infected by the disease in the US alone, with over 105,000 deaths, as of the end of May.
    
In reaction, US President Donald Trump has finally carried out his threat to permanently cut funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO). On May 29, Trump announced the US was terminating its ties with the WHO, one month after he suspended funding to the United Nations health agency. As the disease outbreak worsened in the US, the American president repeatedly lashed out at the WHO for allegedly being a "puppet of China" and helping the Chinese government to cover up the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, which was first reported in the Asian country back in December 2019.  

Australia is also another country that has gotten involved in a Covid-19 tangle with China. After calling for an international inquiry into how China handled the crisis, Australia along with the European Union (EU) countries backed a resolution on a Covid-19 inquiry – aimed at evaluating WHO's response to the pandemic and identifying the origin of the coronavirus.  

The resolution – endorsed by 116 of the 194 member states of the WHO – was brought forward at the 73rd session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), which took place virtually from May 18-19. India, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Canada were among countries that endorsed the resolution.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who addressed the online WHA last month, defended China's actions during the outbreak, arguing the country has been open and transparent in providing information to WHO and other countries. Jinping, nevertheless, supported the idea of an objective, impartial and comprehensive review of the global response to Covid-19 when the disease has been brought under control. According to a Chinese government spokesperson, the purpose of such a review is to reduce the risk of similar outbreak in the future.

The world is in the middle of a pandemic, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has described as a "crisis like no other." Without mincing words, I believe this is simply not the time for acrimonious international politics. This should be a time for the two largest economies to lead the world in the fight against Covid-19, including in the research and development of treatments and vaccines as well as a robust response to stabilise the global economy.

The full scale of the health, social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic is yet to be determined. In five months of the pandemic, the global death toll was in excess of 370,000, while infection cases were over 6.1 million, according to Worldometer. Economically, international commodity and stock markets have been roiled as the virus continues to spread, even though it has begun to taper in some countries. The April 2020 World Economic Outlook of the IMF projects global growth this year to fall to -3 per cent. This is the equivalent of a 6.3 percentage points downgrade from the forecast that was made in January of this year.

Uncertainty in the economic outlook is caused by the interaction of several factors, including the conflicting efficacies of containment efforts in different countries, the large extent of supply disruptions, the fallouts from dramatic shutdowns and the effects on financial and labour markets, shifts in spending patterns and the potential impact of behavioural changes.

Indeed, it is well understood that much of the resentment towards China and the calls for investigations have been driven by the economic fallouts of the pandemic. In some countries like Nigeria, there has been a surge in crime rate in some parts of the country because of the lockdown imposed by the federal and state governments. A group of some Nigerian lawyers have threatened China with a lawsuit, asking for $200 billion as compensation for the economic losses incurred as a result of the pandemic.

The lawyers are part of a list of other groups and countries that have instituted – or plan to institute – legal actions against China for what they claim is the country's failure to prevent the virus from spreading. In response to efforts by some US states to sue the Communist Party of China, the Asian country has also threatened to sue the US for the HIV/AID epidemic that have ravaged many countries since the 1980s as well as the 2008-9 Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Frankly, the rhetorics from all sides are unhelpful, not least because legal experts have opined that such lawsuits are mainly symbolic and attempts at grandstanding. What would be most helpful at this time is international cooperation. Nations, today, ought to be collaborating to increase funding to reduce the negative impact of Covid-19.

Despite backing a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of WHO's response to the pandemic, the EU has demonstrated its support for the organisation, providing additional funding to support its efforts. In a statement that prescribes a different reaction to America's threats to defund the WHO, EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Virginie Battu-Henriksson, correctly said, “This is the time for solidarity, not the time for finger pointing or for undermining multilateral cooperation.”  

Finally, I like to say that what is happening today is a total departure from the humane norm whereby empathy and solidarity is shown in times of peril and calamity. For instance, when someone is sick, you don't hear people asking, “who caused the sickness?” That is hardly the time for finger pointing. Rather, you are more likely to hear empathetic statements like, “get well soon;” or “I wish you quick recovery.”

In this time of Covid-19, nations should de-emphasize selfish interests. It's time to revive and strengthen alliances.