Return of the virus

Europe is witnessing a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of positive cases is rapidly increasing and hospitals are filling up with patients. This has resulted in a greater focus by European governments on measures to control the virus. The international media too has begun to once again accord higher priority and salience to the virus’s spread.

France has announced a month’s national lockdown but with significant differences from that which was imposed in spring this year when the virus first emerged and spread. While people have been asked to stay at home and only go out for medical reasons and emergencies schools and factories will remain open. However, restaurants and non-essential businesses have been shut down. President Emmanuel Macron has warned his countrymen that the country is witnessing a second wave “that will no doubt be harder than the first”.

In Germany fresh measures have been announced to close selected businesses including restaurants and entertainment places but not schools, shops and hairdressers. Those adversely impacted by these selective measures have protested. However, Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised that these tough measures were needed to stop the spread of the virus which was threatening to ‘overwhelm’ the country’s health system.

The US too has seen a great increase in the spread of the virus but it is in election mode. Facing an uphill battle with Joe Biden whose poll numbers are showing that he is ahead in the election race, President Trump and his colleagues have taken no interest in trying to slow down COVID-19. Indeed, they are personally not even following the guidelines of US health authorities. This was vividly illustrated when Vice-President Mike Pence continued to campaign instead of going into isolation as he should have when some of his personal staff tested positive with the COVID-19 infection. It was also seen in Trump holding events in the White House which spread the infection.

In this context White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ stand revealed the essential thinking of the Trump administration on the pandemic. Meadows told an American TV channel “We are not going to control the pandemic…. because it is contagious like the flu”. He indicated that the focus should be on mitigating the virus’s impact through therapeutics so that those who get it survive. He also spoke of the need for vaccines. Meadows was essentially trying to defend Trump and Pence’s disdain for precautions on account of the election. However, there is a great dilemma that currently confronts all governments—how to balance the control of the virus and the dangers to their economies from intense lockdowns. There are no easy choices especially for developing countries.

The different approaches being adopted in Europe and the US is symptomatic of the lack of a global consensus on strategies to combat COVID-19. This is not to suggest that a one-size-fits all approach could have been adopted because there are vast differences in environmental, climatic, social, political and economic circumstances of different countries. But through the pooling of global intellectual capital and material resources co-ordinated attempts could have been made to control the spread and mitigating the impact of the virus. That did not happen because of the lack of coordination among the principal world powers. They decided to basically rely on individual effort instead of real and effective collective action. In this process the main casualty has been the World Health Organisation which was created with the primary objective of cooperation on international health issues.

The WHO attracted world wide attention when the virus emerged in China and began to spread the world over. The global media closely followed its statements and advice. However, as divergences between the US and China began on the latter’s conduct when the virus was first noted in Wuhan late last year the WHO was not careful in navigating the tricky waters of international politics. Also, its own responses of initial Chinese sharing of information came under scrutiny and was perceived to come up short. Trump accused it of adopting a partisan attitude towards China and withdrew the US from the organisation. While other major countries did not go along with the US without it the WHO could not remain the effective central global body for international cooperation against the virus. And, with no organisation available to fulfil the mandate of the WHO there has been an inevitable shortfall in global cooperation to contain the virus.

India is the current chair of the WHO executive board. It has a role to play in energising the organisation. Should Biden win the elections India along with other important world powers should consider engaging the new administration for returning to the WHO. Certainly, the enquiry into the organisation’s initial response to COVID-19 should be expedited and China’s sensitivities should not be allowed to subvert it but at a time of the pandemic the WHO should be energised, not weakened. It has a body of expertise that can be used for co-ordinating international responses to COVID-19 at least in some areas. On its part India should use its current position to ensure that medical knowledge in developing countries in the health sector is taken into account by the WHO. In addition, India should also urge the organisation to avoid any cause for showing a bias towards the developed world because of its competencies in the medical sector. It must help in developing the health infrastructure of the least developed countries in particular.