Modern communications technology has enabled global leaders to keep in touch both bilaterally and multilaterally in these days of COVID-19. They have called each other through the telephone. Regional groupings, including SAARC, as well as influential groups such as the G20 have held virtual summits. These direct and continuing contacts are important to ensure the continuance of international cooperation to mitigate hardships caused by the virus and find pharmaceutical solutions to combat it.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been an active participant in the current interaction among world leaders. A six-day period from April 2 to April 7 is illustrative. During these few days he bilaterally interacted with the leaders of Oman, Bahrain, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Israel, Brazil, Australia, USA and Prince Charles of the UK. Only some of these telephonic contacts—such as with President Donald Trump drew media attention. Others remained confined to Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) press releases.
MEA media releases are still couched in conventional diplomatese. They are generally vague and often cryptic. Hence, on the surface these press statements, including alluded to, conceal more than they reveal of the full nature of discussions that took place. Their close examination, though, throws some light on the current general and specific concerns of these leaders, including Modi; for this reason, they merit consideration.
Obviously COVID-19 overshadows all else in international discourse. That too is evident in Modi’s conversations with these leaders. It is not surprising that the virus’s impact on human health and the global economy is uppermost in the leaders’ minds. However, the statements also indicate that the leaders are viewing these aspects from the stand point of their countries. Thus, the statement regarding Modi’s discussions with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa mentions “The two leaders discussed the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis and its consequences, including on logistics chains and financial markets”. The maintenance of sound logistics chains is crucial to ensure that the international economic and commercial situation does not reach the brink. In Bahrain’s case their continuance and the movement of goods through the oceans and seas are vital for survival itself. As a small island country it is completely dependent for even food supplies from abroad. Bahrain has focussed on developing its financial and banking sector which contributes around 17% of its GDP; its oil production is miniscule compared to other Gulf states. Hence, the special focus on financial markets.
Modi’s conversations with leaders of developed countries—Germany, Australia, Israel and Sweden—dwelt on the importance of collaborative medical research efforts and data sharing among scientists on COVID-19. Generally, international cooperation is seldom effective because of the big money involved in the pharmaceutical industry but it is crucial that it does so now in order to find a vaccine and therapeutic interventions against the virus. But it remains to be seen if the economic and financial considerations of big pharmaceutical companies can be reined in despite the despite the economic devastation caused by the virus.
Specific points of bilateral importance came up in some conversations. Oman and Bahrain’s leaders praised the Indian communities in both their countries and assured that they would look after their interests. This is good for there is simply no way in which Indian residents and those working in these and like countries can be repatriated at this time. In some cases, leaders thanked Modi for the smooth repatriation of their nationals from India to their home countries.
A most significant aspect revealed in these conversations is Modi’s views on what should be the long term impact of COVID-19 on world affairs. He told the German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the pandemic “is an important turning point in modern history, and offers an opportunity to forge a new vision of globalisation focused on the shared interests of humanity as a whole”. The statement notes that Merkel agreed with Modi. He made the same point to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who too agreed with him. Interestingly, the statement uses identical language in reporting both conversations. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez Perez-Castejon is reported as agreeing with Modi’s observation “the world needed to define a new, human-centric concept of globalisation for the post COVID era”.
Modi’s vision of the oneness of humanity derives from ancient Indian tradition. This has, though, always been an aspiration which the human race has never been able to really achieve. History bears that out. Naturally, in times of crisis especially one such as COVID-19 which imperils all human beings the futility of human conflict becomes apparent. Thoughts turn to the common interests of humanity. The question is if such sentiments can be sustained with the return of normalcy?
It is difficult to see the precise contours of the post COVID-19 world nor how pervasive an impact it will make on human thinking and behaviour. Previous pandemics like the Spanish flu of 1918-20 which caused 50 million fatalities in the then human population of 1.8 billion did not change these. However, this is the digital age and the damage of COVID-19 is more sudden, vivid and may be economically deeper. This may lead to fresh thinking on world order and the need to ensure that structures have to be set-up to ensure a minimum welfare for all in the present global population of around 7.8 billion. This will be difficult though in an era of sharp nationalism and leaders like Donald Trump.