World leaders and health authorities are scrambling to get their act together to fight the deadly Covid-19 pandemic which has spared neither rich, industrialised western powers nor developing countries in Asia and Africa. Considering that the disease has affected everyone, the common sense approach would be to place all hands on the deck to fight it.
“We must all join the chorus of humanity in the fight against the virus and win ultimate victory. The virus is a threat to each of us and we must unite as one person,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently. He is right. The disease does not respect national boundaries, colour, race or status. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince Charles are a case in point.
The fact that we live in a global village where everyone is interconnected calls for a joint response. This is not the time to continue with big power rivalries, regional or national issues. Every country knows that co-operation is the only answer.
Yet that has not happened seamlessly. This is mainly because no one saw the pandemic coming and every country is struggling to contain the explosion of the disease. Though nations have pledged to help each other, the fact is that every country is struggling to do the best for its own people. Masks, gloves, personal protection equipment and ventilators are all in short supply worldwide and countries are buying up as much as is available in the world market. Leaders are naturally committed to dousing the home fires first before turning to help others. Yet, smart leaders are also reaching out and hoping to make their voices count.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first on the ball. He called for a meeting of SAARC leaders to work out a joint strategy to fight the coronavirus which was affecting all member states. This was an excellent move to showcase India’s leadership role in the region. Yet in practical terms little, if any, can be achieved at a time when India itself is facing a medical emergency. Modi has been on the phone with other world leaders as well.
US President Donald Trump spoke to Modi on April 5. Both leaders said that India and the US would jointly fight the Covid-19 pandemic. But the main purpose of the call was to ask India to allow the US to import some amount of the malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), which is manufactured here. A day before India had banned the export of this drug as it was proved to work well with some patients of Covid-19. However, on April 7, India decided to help neighbouring countries and a few others, meaning the US, by allowing the export of HCQ. The government made sure that there are enough stocks for the country before taking the decision. But a video of Trump saying he could retaliate if India does not send it HCQ gives a new perspective to these ties.
In a press release, MEA spokesman Anurag Srivastava said: “Given the enormity of the Covid-19 pandemic, India has always maintained that the international community must display strong solidarity and cooperation…In view of the humanitarian aspects of the pandemic, it has been decided that India would license paracetamol and HCQ in appropriate quantities to all our neighbouring countries who are dependent on our capabilities. We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic.” Nowhere was the US mentioned. But basically Modi has obliged Trump.
According to reports from the pharmaceutical industry, India has enough stocks to meet both domestic and foreign supplies. But then, India’s altruism in the pharma sector is well-known. The pharma industry has done great service to the poor of the world by manufacturing AIDS drugs at half the cost of western countries. Despite some pharma companies being hauled up by the US Food and Drug Administration for the supply of substandard drugs, the majority of them have done a major service to help African countries fight the AIDS epidemic which at one time was a major threat to the world.
Though there is no solid evidence to prove that hydroxychloroquine is the right drug for all Covid-19 patients, Trump has been advocating its use for quite some time at his daily news conference. He called it a “game changer”. However, there have been no clinical trials of the drug on coronavirus patients. His own administration’s top adviser on infectious diseases, Dr Anthony Fauci, has said outright that without clinical trials nothing could be endorsed. “In terms of science, I don’t think we can definitively say it works,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation. Trump’s thumbs-up for the drug led to a shortage of demand for it at a time when it was already in short supply due to surging demand. It, incidentally, is also used to treat lupus and other rheumatic diseases.
Fauci’s caution should be kept in mind after the experience of a 44-year-old doctor in Assam who died after using this drug. Several frontline doctors treating Covid-19 patients use it for self-protection. But the reaction to the drug when one is not suffering from malaria can be disastrous. It has not yet gone through elaborate trials to ensure that it is safe. But in a world which does not have an antidote for Covid-19, the usual precautions were discarded.
But with no new drug or vaccine in sight for Covid-19, hydroxychloroquine can be used on some patients as a last resort. With the pandemic expected to reach its peak in India by the end of April, can Delhi afford to export the drug to the US? The government appears confident. If the situation was reversed, would the US give it to us? Certainly not, as Trump firmly believes in America first. The MEA has given a solid explanation for lifting the ban on exports, but basically it boils down to helping the US for strategic considerations.
Meanwhile, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution sponsored by 187 countries, including India, to intensify global cooperation to defeat the pandemic. The resolution was the first document to be adopted by the UNGA and is titled “Global Solidarity to fight the Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19)”. Not surprisingly, the UN Security Council has not yet discussed the issue.
It would be interesting to see if the US, like Trump, points a finger at China if the issue is discussed at the UNSC. Trump insists on calling Covid-19 a “China virus” possibly with an eye at thrashing China to please his base for the November presidential elections. During his election campaign in 2016, Trump frequently accused China of currency manipulation and taking away American jobs. He even went to the extent of accusing it of creating the climate change myth.
The deadly Covid-19 virus started in China but having come out of it, the country is now taking the opportunity to restore its international reputation. Many critics believe that the authorities in Wuhan hid the actual dimension of the epidemic for a long time. It was only when it got out of control that China began giving out all the facts and figures. China controlled the epidemic well by cracking the whip to impose a lockdown and practise social distancing. In fact, social distancing, learnt from China, is now being replicated across the world to fight the virus.
China is now going out of its way to help the world and spread goodwill. It plays into its ambitions to project itself as a global superpower ready to take on such responsibilities. While the US has always played that role, under President Trump, it has drawn a protectionist shield around itself and is abandoning its responsibilities.
China is sending out aid to Europe and the US. Chinese equipment and medical teams have been sent to Italy, one of the worst affected. The China Red Cross Foundation set up an International Humanitarian Assistance Fund against Epidemics, to raise funds and help nations affected by the virus. On March 29, the first aircraft loaded with 80 tonnes of supplies reached New York from Shanghai. The plane carried 1.3 lakh N95 masks, 17 lakh surgical masks and 50,000 protective clothing for frontline health workers. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma distributed equipment to US, countries in Europe and Pakistan. China had also helped Iran, South Korea and Pakistan to battle the disease. It is hoping to rev up its factories to meet the urgent demand for medical equipment. Unfortunately, it is about the only major country where people are back at work.
The race for a vaccine against Covid-19 is on in laboratories across the world. US, Germany and China are in the race for this. The US expects a vaccine by the end of the year. In India too, efforts are on. Any vaccine or drug which is successful will be shared across the world, though first use will be for the country which produces it.
Meanwhile, in the post Covid-19 world, China will play a significant role. The US is in retreat under Trump and is likely to continue this till the run-up to the November presidential elections. If Trump loses, Joe Biden as president will try to reassert US global reach. But much will depend on the state of the US economy. If it bounces back, the US will continue to call the shots. Europe is also in dire straits at the moment. In fact, small European nations, such as Serbia, Slovenia and former East European nations, feel let down by the EU. It is now China which is flooding them with medical aid equipment. India’s clout was already waning due to its bleak economic performance. The lockdown will make it worse. India’s power projection will lack substance without the backing of an economic revival.