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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The G20, the WHO, surly Trump, smiling Xi and Europe stuck between all

  • As the health of nations replaces the wealth of nations as a top concern, the jury is still out on its implications for liberal democracy

Delving into books on political economies and World War II records in search of answers to the covid crisis is futile. Pandemics don’t come with prescriptions. If recent events are any indication, a pre-designed Made-in-China momentum, not a new order, will dominate global thoughts for some time. The democratic world and its institutions are not used to this worrisome version of speed driven by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Its seeds were sown years ago in Africa and Europe.

Is the world hurtling inexorably towards more authoritarian regimes, or do human rights and civil liberties still matter? As the health of nations replaces the wealth of nations as the big issue, the G20 health

ministers’ summit on Sunday will be a signal. China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), one of only five such, and it has driven a wedge in the G7 by swaying Italy away. What does it plan for the G20 in times of coronavirus? Authoritarian regimes, now dealing with death, are unwilling to admit that some of them are either systematic deniers or best friends of human rights violators. The jury is out.

The pandemic has laid bare several levels of political obfuscation, allowing people to look at a wide spectrum of dictatorships. China apart, the world has hailed South Korea and Singapore for bucking the rest of the world’s trend of covid infections and deaths. It seems far from clear if the world is looking at a new international trade order. What is clear is that trade disputes between China and the United States can end up at the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO), forcing developing countries like India to pick between the devil and the deep sea.

Political and economic predictions have been blown out of the water by the virus. Two million people are dead and more are dying and no country is immune. For a long time to come, people may want to ask this question: How did the world of science and medicine, supposedly independent of all conflict of interest, fail to call out the World Health Organization (WHO)?

For too long, money has become a barometer of success of international public health organisations, unfortunately, including the UN’s top health body, the WHO. Money managers in health organisations are known to ceaselessly chase funding, and a disproportionate amount of it allegedly goes into securing their jobs, instead of being disbursed to poor countries.

At the heart of the coronavirus problem, it seems, is the WHO’s failure to alert the world to an impending crisis of which it had early signs in November 2019 and attributed it to an unidentified pneumonia. By all indications, China pulled out all stops to back its chief, Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus.

On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump cut funding for the WHO, seeking an explanation for the allegedly inordinate delay in alerting the world to the deadly virus. In a stiff letter to Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus, the US government said the world health body has “repeatedly relied on false information from the Chinese government" and wanted to review all documents exchanged between Beijing and the WHO over the period of the outbreak, but not limited to it. The US is the WHO’s largest funder (more than $400 million in 2018-2019 as compared to China’s $86 million in the same period).

Views are divided on Trump’s actions, given his poor public health record and that of the US itself. On one side are supporters of Tedros who seem keen to portray Trump as a bully. On the other are journalists and others who are pointing to WHO failures. But framing the problem now as a battle between Trump and Tedros is disingenuous. The latter is Ethiopian, and Ethiopia’s troublesome relationship with human rights has been a subject of debate since 2011. Tedros was the country’s health and foreign minister through tumultuous times, and Western democracies, especially in Europe, knew about the country’s poor record on human rights.

Caught between an angry Washington and a resurgent Beijing, the EU is having to think on its feet. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, announced on Wednesday that she is launching an online pledging initiative on 4 May to “help immediate funding gaps to come up with innovative and equitable solutions" to deal with the health emergency. European companies are also securing themselves from hostile Chinese takeovers. But, when Ferrari makes ventilators, Swiss manufacturers of an after-ski drink make hand sanitizers and European fashion houses make masks, the writing on the wall is clear.

What’s unclear is if trade and commercial activity in times of pandemics will attract WTO attention. China,

some suspect, could be preparing for a WTO capture through enhanced trade in goods and services. The critical question of who holds patents on any future coronavirus vaccine is open, too. At the time of writing comes news that United Health Group’s Sir Andrew Witty will “co lead" the WHO’s global efforts to develop a vaccine.

India is in a delicate spot, but its strongest card is democracy. Focused and determined leadership, backed by stamina to cope with the pandemic, is top priority.

Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning journalist and author.

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