Modern communications technology has enabled global leadersto 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 wellas influential groups such as the G20 have held virtual summits. These direct andcontinuing contacts are important to ensure the continuance of internationalcooperation to mitigate hardships caused by the virus and find pharmaceuticalsolutions to combat it.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been an active participantin the current interaction among world leaders. A six-day period from April 2to April 7 is illustrative. During these few days he bilaterally interactedwith the leaders of Oman, Bahrain, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Israel, Brazil,Australia, USA and Prince Charles of the UK. Only some of these telephonic contacts—suchas with President Donald Trump drew media attention. Others remained confinedto Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) press releases.
MEA media releases are still couched in conventionaldiplomatese. They are generally vague and often cryptic. Hence, on the surfacethese press statements, including alluded to, conceal more than they reveal ofthe full nature of discussions that took place. Their close examination,though, throws some light on the current general and specific concerns of theseleaders, including Modi; for this reason, they merit consideration.
Obviously COVID-19 overshadows all else in internationaldiscourse. That too is evident in Modi's conversations with these leaders. Itis not surprising that the virus's impact on human health and the globaleconomy is uppermost in the leaders' minds. However, the statements alsoindicate that the leaders are viewing these aspects from the stand point oftheir countries. Thus, the statement regarding Modi's discussions withBahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa mentions "The two leaders discussed theongoing COVID-19 health crisis and its consequences, including on logisticschains and financial markets". The maintenance of sound logistics chains iscrucial to ensure that the international economic and commercial situation doesnot reach the brink. In Bahrain's case their continuance and the movement ofgoods through the oceans and seas are vital for survival itself. As a small island country it is completelydependent for even food supplies from abroad. Bahrain has focussed ondeveloping its financial and banking sector which contributes around 17% of itsGDP; its oil production is miniscule compared to other Gulf states. Hence, thespecial focus on financial markets.
Modi's conversations with leaders of developedcountries—Germany, Australia, Israel and Sweden—dwelt on the importance ofcollaborative medical research efforts and data sharing among scientists onCOVID-19. Generally, international cooperation is seldom effective because of thebig money involved in the pharmaceutical industry but it is crucial that itdoes so now in order to find a vaccine and therapeutic interventions againstthe virus. But it remains to be seen if the economic and financialconsiderations of big pharmaceutical companies can be reined in despite thedespite the economic devastation caused by the virus.
Specific points of bilateral importance came up in someconversations. Oman and Bahrain's leaders praised the Indian communities inboth 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 thoseworking in these and like countries can be repatriated at this time. In somecases, leaders thanked Modi for the smooth repatriation of their nationals fromIndia to their home countries.
A most significant aspect revealed in these conversations isModi's views on what should be the long term impact of COVID-19 on worldaffairs. He told the German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the pandemic "is animportant turning point in modern history, and offers an opportunity to forge anew vision of globalisation focused on the shared interests of humanity as awhole". The statement notes that Merkel agreed with Modi. He made the samepoint to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who too agreed with him.Interestingly, the statement uses identical language in reporting bothconversations. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez Perez-Castejon is reportedas 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 fromancient Indian tradition. This has, though, always been an aspiration which thehuman race has never been able to really achieve. History bears that out.Naturally, in times of crisis especially one such as COVID-19 which imperilsall human beings the futility of human conflict becomes apparent. Thoughts turnto 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 postCOVID-19 world nor how pervasive an impact it will make on human thinking andbehaviour. Previous pandemics like the Spanish flu of 1918-20 which caused 50million fatalities in the then human population of 1.8 billion did not changethese. However, this is the digital age and the damage of COVID-19 is moresudden, vivid and may be economically deeper. This may lead to fresh thinking onworld order and the need to ensure that structures have to be set-up to ensurea minimum welfare for all in the present global population of around 7.8billion. This will be difficult though in an era of sharp nationalism andleaders like Donald Trump.