America and Britain are the Big Losers on the World Stage

Image Source: H. Michael Karshis – CC BY 2.0

Lockdowns are unnecessary if the use of masks is practiced by 95 per cent of the population, says Dr Hans Kluge, the World Health Organisation’s European chief. This is good to know, though it is a pity that the WHO did not make the point more forcefully in March as the pandemic was exploding across Europe and the world.

The necessity for face masks had been expressed at the time, but the advice to use them came from a source that European and American leaders dismissed as politically unacceptable. As Britain and other European states were going into lockdown, Dr George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention – the main Chinese public health body – was asked in an interview on 27 March about what he believed were the mistakes being made by other countries trying to control the epidemic. He replied that “the big mistake in the US and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks”.

His opinion should have been taken seriously since China, notwithstanding the suppression of the Uighurs and democracy in Hong Kong, along with other east Asian countries, were succeeding in bringing the coronavirus epidemic under control. But instead of drawing on this experience, the new cold war against China ensured that any positive news from there was ignored, disbelieved or derided. China’s initial concealment of the epidemic was highlighted, and its success in containing it was disregarded. When China’s return to normality was mentioned, it was attributed to autocratic rule that could not and should not be emulated elsewhere. In point of fact, the Chinese achievement resulted largely from old-fashioned public health measures, with a heavy emphasis on test-and-trace and travel bans, pursued with great energy and with the mobilisation of vast resources.

Refusal to learn from a successful campaign against the coronavirus because it was carried out by a political rival was self-destructive for Europe and the US, but their response should not have been unexpected. Before the pandemic, we were already living in a deglobalising world where individual nation states jostle to enhance their power. Rule-based international institutions and coalitions from the WHO and WTO to the EU and NATO were ebbing in influence. The epidemic has only flood-lit the fact that re-energised nationalism is the spirit of the age from America to the Philippines and from China to Brazil.

The dominance of this trend has become clear since 2016, the decisive year that saw the UK voting to leave the EU, the US choosing Donald Trump as president, and Turkey transforming itself into a full-blown autocracy in the wake of a failed military coup.

But Covid-19 has given history a powerful nudge down the roads it was already taking. If a global threat like a deadly virus that knows no borders had emerged a decade earlier, it would probably have provoked a global response under the aegis of the US. But after the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan at the end of 2019, the opposite happened and it speeded up deglobalisation – and not just because of xenophobic rants by Trump or the mini-Trumps that have been popping up around the world.

Nor was it solely among populist nationalist regimes and autocracies that “health nationalism” has become the order of the day. A study, called “Geopolitical Europe in Times of Covid-19” by Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the shock of the epidemic provoked the same response by nation states within the EU as it did among those outside it: “It was clear that none of the great powers were looking to the multilateral system to provide an answer [to the epidemic]. As the death count rose, every country acted as if it was on its own, closing borders, stockpiling medical equipment, and introducing export controls.” This pushback against political and commercial globalisation continues, affecting everything from cross border migration, international travel and tourism to global supply chains and the distribution of vaccines.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).