Workers cheer themselves after loading travellers onto buses in Beijing. Pic - AFP
- Mostly China is at the receiving end with accusations of less transparency, punishing the whistle blowers and delaying the facts and alarms to the outside world
Earlier it was entirely a health issue but now has become more complicated –political, economic and social issues are also reaching equal status as health. Global dynamics of COVID-19 has rapidly changed its outlook at least for the past few weeks.
Governments world over are struggling to feed its people, stop spreading of a deadly virus, treat hundreds or thousands of affected, keep others healthy, maintain the economy in its minimum levels and more importantly saddle between whether or not to release lockdown. None of these efforts are going to make the incumbent government popular. Imagine when political battles of elections come over on top of all these challenges? At least six countries including Sri Lanka are facing this challenge of facing polls within the next three months.
No politician would even dream of such a calamity mainly at a time of crucial elections. This applies from President Vucic of Serbia who will face polls in three weeks to President Donald Trump who is now struggling to maintain his popularity in the face of devastating economy. Printing money is the only way out for many economies including that of the US, but unlike for President Trump, for others it would be like digging their own graves in the long run. But no options left.
Apart from the economic issues, the global political drama is becoming more alarming as it is continuing to confine to a mere blame game. Mostly China is at the receiving end with accusations of less transparency, punishing the whistle blowers and delaying the facts and alarms to the outside world. May be true. Nevertheless, individuals and governments alike do make mistakes. But, of course, not at the cost of millions of lives, one could argue. And equally those should not be ‘calculated mistakes.’ However, what has happened has already happened now. Blame games will neither bring those lost lives back nor would it bring solutions to the global issue.
As Indonesia’s Inter-Parliamentary Cooperation Committee Chairman, Fadli Zon, told a regional ministerial webinar this week attended by representatives from Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea, the world now badly need a global effort to coordinate various domains including the delivery of health assistance, the development of global health policy and financial relief. “The pandemic might have changed the global landscape, but multi-lateralism should remain at the core of cooperation,” he told the webinar.
For example, do we have a sound coordination to learn from success stories elsewhere in the world? Hong Kong and South Korea are the best examples that we can think of best success stories from Asia. Our media was full of stories on South Korean elections last week – probably to promote the idea of holding elections here as well – but did they did tell us the secret behind that success? May be of less interest for them.
There were three main reasons for the success in South Korea: Aggressive testing at community level from the very beginning, educating the masses and getting their cooperation, ensuring fullest transparency on the developments. Now how can we learn from these best practices without a coordinated global mechanism? What we now need is a global response to the global pandemic. Individual countries like Sri Lanka can fight against the virus, but the efforts will be futile if there are no global responses in this globalized world. Please do not forget that the economic pandemic could be more serious than the health. No single economy in the world could rise against the doldrums and the social impacts will be more severe. We are already witnessing social unrest in several countries. Thus, the global responses should be a package of solutions to all sectors alike, not confining to health only.
Global responses require global leadership. As former Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe recently told Indian media we saw several types of global leaderships emerged during certain global calamities in recent decades. But we are yet to see such a global stewardship in the battle against COVID-19 and its politico-economic implications.
I personally think, almost all potential global leaders and institutions either have lost their credibility or lacking such global leadership charisma and stature. I don’t think the western world is having such qualities in their political theaters who commands global trust and respect. WHO is a sectoral institution with no mandate on cross cutting issues, but yet its role in tackling the global pandemic, at least its early stages, is now being questioned. The ideal multilateral institution is UN but the world body is no where to be seen. To my mind, we would have seen a different UN, had there been Kofi Annan or even Ban-Ki-Moon at its driving seat.
We at least saw a regional leadership when Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened the SAARC leaders for a deliberation with some solid actions in mid-March. But yet, we need more cooperation with a solid leadership. May be, I would argue, at least China should come forward and do a proper damage controlling and image re-building through an active global engagement to fill this vacuum. In fact, this could be an opportunity for China, if it really aspires to be a global leader.
If so, there is a two-track strategy China can adopt. The first is heavy investment in global health sector on bi-lateral and multilateral level. It should not make symbolic gestures to WHO by increasing its contribution from US$ 40 to 70 million per year but should match the withdrawal of US$ 400 million. On bi-lateral stage, China has been an ‘active investor’ of all these countries in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Why not use this economic brotherhood to rise up as a friend in need to all these countries? (But not by donating a few dozens of masks and ventilators). Why not using one-belt-one-road initiative as an avenue for these assistance? Can Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, the Chinese model for IMF and World Bank consider relief packages to the affected countries?
The second track is redefining its public diplomacy strategies and get into a more collaborative engagement at all levels. The present strategy of ‘aggressive responses’ that even includes aggressive replying to minor social media comments would not help this giant nation in rebuilding its image as a global leader. Better to accept the mistakes than fighting back. The world is always ready to forgive and forget, thus, a country like China could easily become a savior than a monster. Hence, this is an opportunity, if China carefully and strategically think.
The author is former Director General of Government Information department