Long a symbol of human solidarity, the United Nations is currently experiencing dark times, as the COVID-19 pandemic casts its deadly shadow and the world economy tumbles. People are being divided. Countries are being decoupled. Hatred and blame are being spread. In a call to action during the celebration of the UN’s 75th anniversary recently, President Xi Jinping of China urged unity in tackling this unprecedented crisis facing the world community.
History tells that when facing a global challenge, such as a financial crisis, climate change or terrorism, countries normally pull together to cooperate. They agree on a responsive international mechanism. Compared with modern history’s other known crises, the global health emergency prompted by COVID-19 is unprecedented and guaranteed to fundamentally change the world order as we have known it.
First, global health security is so much more than a development issue, as it has been framed in the past. It was almost invariably poor and developing countries asking for assistance, as they lacked the wherewithal to treat diseases such as ebola and malaria. But COVID-19 for the first time forces us to think that public health security is a universal problem, respecting neither geographic borders nor socioeconomic status.
Worse still, many rich countries initially, and even recently, performed poorly in the fight against COVID-19. This was, and still is, especially true of the U.S., given its early knowledge about this plague and its leaders’ denigration of public health and science. This is in stark contrast to the early leadership by China and the World Health Organization in containing the virus and warning of the need for immediate action. It is saddening to see that the arrogance has resulted in so much suffering and so many lives lost. The rich world should recognize China’s positive performance, rather than stigmatizing it with racist names such as the “Chinese virus” or “Kungflu.”
Second, we have never appreciated the economic impact of a virus as fully as we have with COVID-19. We thought narrowly that public health security, as with any development issue, only costs money for the rich donor nations while providing no benefit to them in return. Therefore, helping others may make less economic sense for them. That may explain why the amount contributed to the Global Fund, which was created in 2014 to fight epidemics, never collected the full amount pledged. But COVID-19 teaches us that without sustainable financing for public health, a contagious disease can immobilize the whole world.
Investing relatively little money in global health security today will most certainly pay huge dividends in saving lives and economies tomorrow. While it was timely to commit to spend swiftly and decisively at the extraordinary G20 leaders’ summit in March, investments ideally must precede outbreaks to maximize the investment’s potential impact.
The third ray of light emanating from COVID-19 is that mankind is indeed a community with a shared future, and no one is safe until everyone is safe, precisely as expressed by President Xi in his recent UN speech. China has indeed been grateful for the outpouring of assistance from the international community during the first two-months of its national war against COVID-19. In turn, China generously reciprocated when the pandemic was declared by the WHO on March 11. China sent out medical teams and supplies worldwide, while also sharing online its methods for testing, prevention and treatment.
In the multinational arena, China committed to increase funding for the WHO, the main international organization coordinating the fight against COVID-19, and it joined COVAX, a platform working for equitable global access to coronavirus vaccines. China also actively participated in the G20 debt suspension plan, which is critical for low-income countries in the fight against the pandemic. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral organization initiated by China that is now in its fifth year of operation, also made prompt funding commitments for public health infrastructure alongside peer institutions.
Each country has to address a difficult dilemma in the fight against COVID-19 — containing the disease or saving its economy. Which comes first? China resolved to contain the disease before opening its economy, and the strategy proved a remarkable success. It is the only major economy projecting positive growth this year. In China’s war to contain the virus, literally all its 1.4 billion people have been mobilized since late January. The dual success is no coincidence; the Chinese government has been transparent, resolute and consistent from day one. The tried-and-true best practices established by China should be applauded and followed worldwide — with no more hesitation.
By contrast, President Donald Trump and other officials in the United States have repeatedly called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and “Kungflu,” and some American media used the racist headline “China is the real sick man of Asia,” a universally damning idiom that echoes in Chinese ears as a historical insult. Internationally, before the U.S. withdrew from the WHO, Trump ignored his country’s solemn legal obligation to support the WHO, an organization he criticized as both corrupt and pro-China. The U.S. has effectively relinquished its leadership at this critical time for mankind.
Trump not only proved himself utterly incompetent in this crucial test, and his ineptitude and lack of crisis leadership devastated his re-election campaign. At the same time, he grievously injured his country, his allies and the world. Regardless of the results of the U.S. election, I believe that Trump, to his last day in office and perhaps even afterward, will continue to play politics over science, facts and law. He will continue to divide his people and mobilize his base of hate to shift blame onto others, possibly triggering even more domestic social unrest or even hot wars at home or abroad. This will surely be catastrophic for America and bad for the world. In doing so, however, Trump has inadvertently hastened the ultimate restructuring of the world order.