The International Politics of COVID-19


Ademola Araoye

By Ademola Araoye

The global management of the scourge of Corona virus-dubbed COVID- 19- has been overwhelmed by the international politics it has elicited. The context of the global pandemic has been difficult and problematic. The plague has come at a period of intense withering of the liberal order, mounting challenges from populist and nationalist politicians in major capitals, charging against advances in globalization, borderless trade. All these reflect the repudiation of multilateralism and common efforts to protect humankind. Across Europe, North America and Asia a retreat to nationalism and xenophobia, to various degrees, has been the reflex in the response to COVID-19. Integral to the nationalist instincts is the recent overt formal proclamation by the United States of a new rivalry pitting leading world powers to consolidate national technological competiveness, in particular in the development of 5G cellular technology. 5G Technology is defined as the single most important factor to secure unassailable national leadership in the economy, security, health and overall wellbeing of national society. This nationalist aspiration at the core of the struggle against COVID-19 is to prevent or accelerate, depending on which side of the contesting aisles, radical structural change and maintain or transform the configuration of power in the post pandemic world. In China, the Corona crisis has also elicited overt xenophobic attacks on Africans as the alleged vectors of the virus. This has exploded into the open the subliminal tensions that had characterized the discourse on Sino-African relations.

There has thus been a throwback to the old nebulous conception of old state centric sovereignty in the face of COVID 19. The raging controversies around the national origins of the virus mask dangerous contradictions in the fundamental principles and understandings underpinning the divergent policy responses and the antagonistic attitudes of major leaders of the global system. The troubling fluidity includes the unacknowledged almost certainty of the manufacture of Corova 19 virus as a secret biological weapon in a laboratory by anyone of the preeminent powers of the system. In this regard, Australian Member of Parliament issued from the National Party, George Christensen, has demanded that China pays for the global spread of corona virus that he suggests y have been deliberate after being created in a Wuhan laboratory. There has also been the demand for accountability raised by proxies of the establishment in the United States of America for $26 billion fiscal reparation to be paid by China. Associated with the contrived confusion and propaganda on the origins of the virus are public indictments of compromised intellectuals in leading scientific institutes in the United States for the transfer of state protected scientific experiments, outcomes, and data to competing foreign powers. The focus has thus been on a blame game with its many paradoxes revealing the dearth of global solidarity in the face of the deadly pandemic. At one end of the divide on managing global challenges is the vilification of the leadership of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the general undercutting of the traditional role of multilateral institutions that promote collective action on human affairs. The international politics of the scourge has provided the platform to advance the whittling down of multilateralism.

These tensions and the clashing impulses in the strategic permutations of world leaders of significance center on the implications of the plague for the future of governance of human society. By repudiating collaboration from the onset, concerns over the loci of various states in the projected post COVID dispensation have been a determinant factor in the poor management of the global pandemic. With the Corona virus inspired ousting of many deleterious myths around which old governing hegemonic falsities revolved, the structure of global power in a post COVID world has been foremost in the strategic calculus of many actors. This imperative has, minimally though, influenced national approaches to and directly colored the international politics of the management of COVID 19.  This politics expresses a profound struggle by the preeminent forces to institute or dismiss an axiomatic universal code of an assumed transcendental common spirit of humanity as the operative mantra in the global confrontation against the plague.  The position taken by the various forces articulate three possible options in relation to the structure of the post COVID-19 universe: to consolidate a presumed hegemonic status quo driving the Trump administration, to advance the claims of hegemonic parity with the West from China, and to projectglobal and regional collaboration in the context of a diminished or strengthened consciousness of a West. The tensions of the politics are expressed in the varying degree of initial acceptance of the principle of across the board global collaboration in the management of the COVID 19 or resistance, outright dismissal, of collaboration in preference of focused silos of nationalistic state-centric policies around the global pandemic. The calculus of post COVID power relations is at the heart of the many instigated controversies around the origins of the virus, the propaganda around the virus, the philanthropy associated with the plague, the propounded nexus of the virus to the G5 technology, as well as the attempted naming of the virus as Wuhan virus by the American president. There exists a context and a history to this almost surreal silent war to what essentially is a challenge to the state of global health sciences.

These dangerous responses across the globe to a common danger to global health demonstrate dubious lessons learned from past global plagues. Pandemics generate helplessness and therefore fear in gravely uncertain times. The search for scapegoats among those defined as outsiders in the society are intensified in uncertain times. Historians are largely agreed that past pandemics have reshaped societies in profound ways, sometimes on revolutionary scales. Mass tragedies inhere in them revolutionary anarchy. Empires have crumbled. Governments have been toppled. It is recorded that the Yellow Fever that swept through Philadelphia in 1793 ultimately led to the change of the capital of the United States of America to Washington as the ruling class fled. New social forces are unleashed in the chaos of pandemics that have threatened to consign hitherto dominant classes to the trash bins of history.

These potential impacts, observed in antiquity and contemporary past, apply to integrated mass social systems like the villagized world. In the age of globalization, the global pattern of COVID 19 infection has been along the world major trade routes linking the various worlds that are separate but, at the same time, integrated into a global system. The societies of the constituent universes of the system are impacted based on the degree and intensity of their social proximities. Where integration due to migration, human inspired territorial adjustments, or trade, but not sufficient physical assimilation of the communities has taken place, and minorities are created in a new locale, the minority, including religious minorities, often is the victim of mass fear in uncertain times like a plague. This has been a dominant theme in the narratives of the persecution of Jews and other nationalminorities across the globe. Dr Lisse-anne Pirofski, Chief of Infectious diseases at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, advances that when disease strikes, and humans suffer, the need to understand why is very powerful. And, unfortunately, identification of a scapegoat is sometimes inevitable. Meanwhile, the more intense interaction, due to trade or other reasons, with the original index and secondary hotspots of mass infection, the greater the prospects of significant infection of the society. The paradox has been that the more the strategic competitive interaction there is between nations and societies, the more the incentive to seize the opportunity of the human tragedy of the pandemic to advance partisan strategic hegemonic objectives of the total universe, where the collaborative principle of joint action is rejected. And the arsenal of system dominationincludes the ultimate soft diplomacy-philanthropy in times of need. Cultivating a contrived dependency syndrome is thus an instrument of domination of the weak in the system. Meanwhile in the mix of major powers mutually contesting and, at the same time, reciprocally warding off challenges to their legitimacy by their rivals for global supremacy, COVID 19 is reshaping critical perceptions as new forces, more appropriately medium powers, like Cuba, are grudgingly being acknowledged as they demonstrate crucial capacities in the management of this tragedy that has overwhelmed global system.

Unacknowledged emerging realities have come to the fore. These changes are within the context of on-going multiple strategic jousting of key forces in the global system. The post COVID-19 world may turn out to be volatile. This outcome would depend on other developments outside the purview of this essay. However, significant lessons from pandemics can be adduced from the plagues of antiquity including the Plague of Justinian between 541 AD and 542 AD, with estimated casualties of 30 to 50 million, through 5 million deaths registered by the Antoine Plague, also known as the Plague of Galen, from 165 to 180 AD. In the middle ages, humanity was confronted with the Black Death from 1347 to 1352. Iteviscerated between 75 to 200 million people. The Black Death was followed by New World small pox in 1520, Great Plague of London in 1665, the Italian Plague in 1629, the Third Plague in 1885, Yellow Fever in the late 1800s and the Russian in 1889. The modern era has witnessed the likes of the flu from 1918 to 1920 that killed 50 million, Asian flu, Hong Kong flu, Swine flu, Ebola. HIV/AIDS, that began 1981 and still ravages, has a death toll of 50 million. COVID-19 in the first quarter of 2020, as at a bleak Easter Sunday on 12 April, 2020, has infected 1.7 million persons globally and killed 110,000 globally.  The responses, rather than management, to past plagues, especially those that can be truly characterized as global pandemics, have been driven more by crude uninformed nationalist sentiment,  xenophobia and the persecution of a tagged and tarred minority. The typical reaction to the helplessness of society in the face of the challenge posed by a plague often reflects the state of inter-human (race) relations. It was always the descent to theidentification of and sentiment around “who is in and who is out.” Often the blame on the outsider was in the context of being the carrier of a pestilence through which the whole human race was near to being annihilated. History records that during the Black Death, Pope Clement VI had to issue an edict, or bull, saying Jews were not responsible for the plague. The global response to COVID 19 in 2020 has not been much different from those of antiquity, even if its expressions are tempered by the evolved sensibilities of humankind. In the current world,Africa is that marginally integrated but largely unassimilated minority.

Africa is a willing victim of Contrived Dependency Syndrome. It courts it. Africa has been caught in the turbulence of the nebulous global politics of COVID-19. It is not as a partner in the search for solution, but, predictably, a willing net influence absorbing continental entity. The dangers posed to Africa by the nationalist policy thrusts of major powers have never been more manifestly dangerous. The febrile structure, the abysmally low quality of the leadership of its unwieldy political spaces, its comprehensive limited capacities all guarantee its continued tangential relevance in the rapidly transforming world affairs. In the current global health crisis, Africa has therefore looked up to and been a recipient of philanthropy from a China that is often disparaged, in an extension of the politics of the major powers,by local proxies of its western rivals that are deeply entrenchedin the continent. Africa, in this intriguing climate, has also been cautioned, by no less a person as former United States President Barrack Obama, to be circumspect in its gluttony for charity. The former American President, who is in a position to know, called on Africa to reject any form of assistance from outside the continent, citing specifically America and France, the major competitors of China in Africa. Africa is alerted that theostensible offer of charity may hide odious intentions that may be harmful to the continent as an experimental ground. The maxim is that dependency can be mortally harmful. Recent revelations of the true intentions of some scientific experimentsin the health sciences conducted by western institutions in Africa confirm that they were designed, often as political instruments, to harm Africans. The sad part is Africa is not even equipped, due to its mode of organization convenient for the wreckers of its vision or its paltry technological knowhow, to uncover international criminal plots or indeed the execution of such assaults against its well being. Meanwhile, it is yet to be seen how a divided international system would respond to Africa’s plea for a U$ 100 billion aid to combat massive infliction anticipated in a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that would ravage the continent. Africa, perpetually ready with abegging calabash at every flimsy turn, is an outlier in the very serious international politics of COVID-19: a vigorous politics of aggression that is geared towards consolidation or more radical transformation of the global system. So, located between a rock and a hard place, the politics of COVID-19 has laid bare the utter obsolescence of the rationale underpinning the political construction of the continent and its mortal fragility. The situation is compounded by the fact that the continent is presently governed as no more than little and expanded fiefdoms of parochial ethnically mobilized and focused champions. Ideas are generally discounted as irrelevant in the dominant governance paradigm. The current global debacle is thus a welcome crisis of Africa’s untenable pseudo nationalisms. Some analysts have pondered if CONVID 19 is the awakening of a new World Order. Collective Africa, still in its slumber, is certainly not part of this awakening.

The awakening has implied critical confrontations with serious implications unfolding for the post COVID-19 system. The tense politics of COVID-19 has been characterized by numerous assaults across traditional spheres of major competing power constellations. Driving this hostile approach is the apprehensionin Washington over shifting balance of global diplomatic power in favor of China. Accordingly, as the challenger to the presumed leader in the now fragilized old structure, China’s relationship with the United States has been based on a principleof “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win collaboration”. The Chinese policy was reiterated in President Xi Jinping’s call to his American homologue to urge him to take “substantive actions” to improve relations. The conversation was focused on the management of the global pandemic. In a late March 2020 call to President Donald Trump, President Xi Jinping asserted that “working together brings both sides benefits. “Cooperation is the only choice” to develop a relationship that is “without conflict and confrontation” but based on “mutual respect and mutually beneficial cooperation”, he affirmed. The phrase deployed by the Chinese side has been deconstructed in official United States as a coded sequence of terms of the Chinese to describe a new reality in the balance of power and associated demand for the acknowledgment of this emerged diplomatic parity in the bilateral interaction between the two powers. Notwithstanding the diplomatic appeal, President Trump continued his reference of the Corona virus as the “Chinese virus”. Chinese diplomats have then claimed that although the virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the virus, in fact, had originated in the United States. China left analysts to figure out the implied meaning.

The nationalist streak of China set in when it shut its borders on foreigners to usher in nationalist responses to the scourge all over the world. Africans resident in China bore the immediate brunt of xenophobia when accused of carrying the virus to China and evicted from hotels. That even after undergoing mandatory 14 day self isolation prescribed by the authorities in Beijing.Meanwhile, the ban on foreigners imposed by China exacerbated tensions with Washington as both countries traded accusations on the origins of COVID-19. Africa, and, to a lesser extent, Asia are the prime theaters of grass in the fight of the two global elephants. In both regions, the contempt of the current United States administration had been expressed in massive cuts and roll backs in development assistance. Major international deals negotiated for regional and global stability by previous United States administrations have been repudiated. A critical demonstration has been the unraveling of the six power deal with Iran to contain its nuclear program for military purposes and limit it to civilian use. Iran and six world powers including  the five permanent members of the Security Council , (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States of America) and Germany had signed a historic nuclear agreement on July 14, 2015 that limited Iran’s nuclear program to be heavily monitored by the international community. In exchange nuclear sanctions placed on Iran would be lifted. The deal has been abandoned by the United States. Again, there was the neglect of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade agreement in Asia dating to the Barrack Obama years by President Trump. These policy flip flops have had telling impact on perceptions of America’s leadership. Surveying the devastation wreaked on the outcomes of initiatives of preceding United States administration and the resultant encroachment of China in the previous iconic diplomatic successes of the United States in the developing world, former Secretary of State John Kerry, laments the current situation of the United States in terms of retreating from “being a big, powerful, ambitious country setting the global agenda and executing on it”…“is a completely self inflicted wound”.

Against the withdrawal of the Trump’s United States from progressive collaborative global politics, China instituted a hands-on approach to developmental diplomacy across Africa and Asia. It poured $1.4 trillion into infrastructural development and spends $ 10 billion a year in external propaganda. China is the second largest donor to peacekeeping operations of the United Nations and deploys more peacekeepers around the world than the combined total of the other four permanent members of the Security Council.  As America and Europe have been engrossed managing the gargantuan challenges of the global pandemic, Chinese philanthropy has, so far, dominated assistance to Africa in the COVID-19 crisis. By the end of the first week of April, Chinese billionaire tech founder Jack Ma had supplied 500 ventilators and 200,000 personal protective to African countries. In March, 2020 he had donated over 1 million test kits and 600 masks to Africa. It may however be noted that the provision of public goods in health, security and other areas had long been a responsibility associated with the United States.Considering that the Obama administration spent $2.3 billion in the campaign against Ebola in three West African countries, the $37 million supplemental allocation to 25 impacted African countries by Trump have raised question around the commitment of the United States. President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is perceived as having decelerated the collaborative thrust in Washington’s foreign policy. Contrasting this, outside of Africa China has donated 26 tons of supplies and deployed a team of specialists to advise the Italian government.

Yet the reduction in the salience of international cooperation occur within a paradoxical context. World leaders and key opinion molders within the United States had long warned against the notion that the problems of the world can be solved by isolationism and protectionism of a nationalist administration in the United States. These admonitions have had no bearing on the unilateral approaches to COVID -19 in North America, Europe and Asia. The display of extreme self interest in the $1 billion offer of the US President to a Tubingen-based bio-pharmaceutical  company Cure-Vac to secure a COVID-19 vaccine under development by the German company “ for exclusive rights to the vaccine” with a view to securing it “only for the United States” was the highpoint of nationalist policy on the management of COVID-19. It led to furious reactions of German public figures. “Germany is not sale”!! and that “German researchers are taking the leading role in developing  medication and vaccines as part of global cooperation networks.” Even the European Union has to explain to Italians why it must continue to be part of the Union given massive disenchantment in that country of the nationalisms of northern European states in relation to COVID-19. But the world, it would seem, had not remained fixated in mourning as the United States decided to abdicate leadership in global diplomacy, and by implication, international collaboration and joint action, in managing global challenges. A new dimension in nationalism however set in in the revelation of a new technological race for national ascendance.

The declaration of President Trump to win a race to consolidate technological superiority of the United States is a direct fall out of the discredited touted linkage of COVID- 19 to radiation fallout from 5G installations. In highlighting the potential revolutionary impact of 5G, President Trump in early April, 2020 proclaimed that America must lead world in cellular technology. America, he affirmed, must win the race of the 5G revolution. Secure 5G networks would be a vital link to astonishing and unimaginable prospects of transforming the productive capacity, wellbeing and security of the United States. To win against those the President described as competing enemy states, from which the advances in the technology must be hidden, U$ 275 billion would be invested in 5G networks that are envisaged to create 300 million jobs in the American economy. By next year, the President projected that the United States would have more 5G spectrum than any country in the world. By the end of 2020, the United States would have deployed 92 5G deployments in markets nationwide.

The bogus narrative of 5G technology in relation to the global pandemic attributes the guilt of the COVID-19 human tragedy to Wuhan and China indirectly to their alleged superiority in the 5G technology. Such was the potency of this alarm that it was seized upon by many ignorance wielding charlatans to campaign against this scientific breakthrough that may sooner than latercome to represent the icon of a divided universe along the fault lines of technological proficiency. When fully operational the5G era may serve as the firm border of a new world of fulfilled societies and states harnessing in full the dividends of a scientific revolution and an old universe stuck in not a developing mold, but consigned as a residue of a putrefyinguniverse surviving on the rejected crap and rotten wastes from the emerged technology driven new world. In this scenario, it is very imaginable that Africa would have further consolidated its status as a rejected burden of humanity. Associated with this unenviable status would be the inevitable enhancement of Africa’s landmass as, literally, a free field for  global junk and its shameful role as the solicited graveyard of everything disused and discarded in the new world that would emerge with the 5G revolution. Whether nationalism instigated or predicated on over exploited western liberal sentiment, the emerging new world is showing dangerous signs of fatigue. This is not the conventional donor fatigue, but a debilitating fatigue of the very human spirit for accommodation. Given its political construction, discounted values and obsolete fixations on principled rubbish, Africa cannot win. The Republic of Africa beckons.