The world has lived this year, like the last, in the grip of the covid-19 pandemic and there is no end in sight. As Bill Gates tweeted a few days ago “Just as it seemed like life would return to normal, we could be entering the worst part of the pandemic. Omicron will hit home for all of us…Omicron is spreading faster than any virus in history. It will soon be in every country in the world”. There is global consensus on the infectiousness of this new covid-19 variant though, as yet, there seem to be differences among experts on the severity of the disease caused by Omicron.
The fear is that infections are rising so rapidly in European countries and the US that their medical systems may be unable to handle the number of patients that may need hospitalization.
The governments of these countries are therefore cautioning their peoples to take all non-therapeutic precautions and take vaccinations including booster doses. So are governments of all countries especially where health facilities are not so good as in the advanced countries.
Urging people to be extremely cautious, Gates predicted “If there is good news here, it’s that Omicron moves so quickly that once it becomes dominant in a country, the wave there should last less than three months. Those few months could be bad, but I still believe that if we take the right steps, the pandemic can be over in 2022”. Gates assessments cannot be ignored even if he is not an epidemiologist or a virologist. He has studied infectious diseases for a long period and is known for his insights on issues beyond information technology.
Gates’ optimism on the end of the pandemic is noteworthy but so is the caveat contained in his words “if we take the right steps”. The fact is that the global response to covid-19 so far does not hold any assurance that the international community will take the “right steps”. Despite all the fine sentiments expressed and assurances given in multilateral summits of the international community coming together to combat this scourge what has been witnessed is global disunity. The major powers had, and continue to have a special responsibility to evolve common approaches to fight the pandemic. From the beginning of the emergence of covid-19 in 2019 in Wuhan in China though there has been an absence of will to evolve a common global strategy to combat the virus.
The leaders of great powers should have sunk their differences and commissioned theirs and other global experts to recommend strategies to combat the virus. Such an approach required wisdom in world leaders, especially of the US and China. However, former US President Donald Trump first downplayed the dangers of the virus and thereafter adopted erratic and at times bizarre positions. Far from leading the international community to forge a consensus to handle the gravest global health crisis since the Influenza of 1918-20, Trump pulled the US out of the World Health Organisation (WHO), accusing it of showing bias in favour of China. It is true that WHO’s conduct in the initial months in 2020 was unsatisfactory for it did not press China enough to give information on the new coronavirus but the answer to that would have been for the US to steer matters in the right direction within the WHO. Instead Trump whose focus was entirely on winning the Presidential election decided to become insular in keeping with his over-all ‘America First’ approach. It was good that Trump’s successor Joe Biden reversed Trump’s decision on WHO and the US has re-joined the organisation.
President Xi Jinping is obsessed with pushing China on the path of glory. He is therefore simply unable to take any step that will show China in a poor light. Hence, his instinctive response to the emergence of the new coronavirus in end-2019 in Wuhan was to severely restrict information flows in order to avoid China being criticised. This prevented a common global response to be put in place early to try to prevent the virus from spreading. Indeed when Australia pressed for the origin of covid-19 to be investigated by WHO, China launched a diplomatic and trade offensive against it. There is some indication that Xi Jinping had alerted Trump about the virus but surely what was needed was for China to alert the world expeditiously. Further, all through the past two years China has aggressively pushed its competition with the US and has continued to conduct itself irresponsibly with other states, including India.
With the US and China pursuing their geo-political competition despite the dislocations and enormous distress caused by covid-19 there is very little chance that the international community will take the “right steps”. These steps have to pursue the principle that pandemic will not end unless it ends everywhere. The major powers and the rest of the international community accepts this principle and clothes it in fine phrases such as vaccine equity but the actions of the advanced countries show a narrow focus on their individual interests. This is demonstrated by the hoarding of vaccines by western countries. Some of the hoarded vaccines have gone waste instead of being sent where they were needed. In such circumstances naturally every country is compelled to do what it can for its people.
Bill Gates’ words should rouse world leaders even now to focus on common approaches but that possibility seems very remote if not impossible. Hence, it would be prudent for all countries, including India, to look after their own interests.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.