China, Covid-19 and the end of globalisation as we knew it

For China, the handling of Covid-19 has been a tale of two halves. Its early failures undermined the possibility of an effective, joined-up international response, writes Jason Young.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken innocent lives, caused untold suffering and put pressure on health care systems all over the world. It has also forced many of us home and to temporarily pause our normally busy schedules, providing the opportunity to reflect on the nature of our interconnected world.

Central to that world is China, a global centre of manufacturing and commerce and a key beneficiary of the past few decades of globalisation. When the dust settles on the global pandemic, many will ask why the initial response to the virus was so ineffective and the messaging from Beijing so mixed. Why was the gravity of the challenge communicated so poorly between China and other countries and how could leading countries and international bodies have failed to coordinate a joined-up global response?

Covid-19 has forced governments all over the world to take extraordinary peacetime actions to maintain public health and national security. Most have curtailed social movement and gatherings, shut schools and malls, restricted or banned cross-border movements and halted non-essential economic activities.

Some have stepped in to redirect private sector resources toward production of supplies needed to combat the spread of the virus and to care for the sick. Most are seeking ways to bolster businesses and support workers through government programmes. Yet others have established military hospitals to care for the sick and sent soldiers into cities to enforce lockdown measures and maintain the supply of key resources.

Internationally, Covid-19 has shut down parts of the global trading system and disrupted the global value chains synonymous with economic globalisation. It has largely curtailed international travel and sent shockwaves through global financial markets.

At the heart of this pandemic response lies China, the country first charged with managing the virus and preventing its worldwide spread. Faced with the new virus, the Chinese authorities acted too slowly and indecisively. They failed to ensure transparency in their response, muzzling whistle-blowers like Dr Li Wenliang, and contributing to the need for a much wider and more extreme lockdown in China and the world.

For China, the handling of Covid-19 has been a tale of two halves. The original failure to contain the spread and the failure to compel other governments to act early and decisively in their control efforts has tarnished the Chinese government’s international image. Chinese ambassadors were still imploring countries to leave their borders open to arrivals from China and talking down the impact of the virus even as Chinese authorities back home were cracking down strenuously through lockdowns, quarantines and a massive testing regime in an effort to contain its spread.

The outbreak in China appears to have stabilised following decisive lockdown measures. China is getting through but only after untold individual sacrifices, the expenditure of significant economic and government resources and large-scale purchasing and production of personal protective equipment (PPE). There is much foreign governments could have learnt from China about containing the virus during this second-half performance if only the lines of communication were more functional and more trust existed.

At the same time, the abrupt changes have shone light on the dependency many countries have on China for the production and supply of public health resources like PPE and pharmaceuticals. Many have expressed anger that their own governments have limited capacity to manage critical health supplies even in a time of medical crisis.

The whole affair brings into stark relief the danger to the world of an increasingly dysfunctional US-China relationship, mired by distrust, brinkmanship and an inability to communicate even during a global pandemic. The countries that did act quickly and decisively did so not from listening to official Chinese statements about the virus, or by following the US lead, but rather from taking heed of the scale and intensity of China’s crackdown in Wuhan.

As many countries are now experiencing almost identical patterns of infection rates, thereby emulating the original failures China made, China finds itself in a new position. As a manufacturing centre that can produce PPE materials and pharmaceuticals required by other countries, it is now poised to support the global response.

But in today’s globalised world what should be happening is not. The failure of leading economies like the G7 to take coordinated action has left the world absent a coalition of influential countries to lead the international health response and to ensure equitable and efficient supply of medical resources. The World Health Organization has made progress on a global response but in the absence of United Nations Security Council backing most countries have gone it alone. The World Trade Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund are yet to set in place a coordinated plan for sustaining international trade and investment and for managing the predicted 2.5 percent drop in global gross domestic product.

Countries are failing to join up to coordinate their responses, pool resources and look out for the most vulnerable. Instead we see a war of words about who is to blame, who has the best response and who is leading the global response. These are hardly messages for the world to rally around.

For China’s part, cadre, policymakers, intellectuals and netizens have tried to turn the original public relations disaster on its head. We’ve witnessed disinformation campaigns that spread conspiracy theories shared by Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Zhao Lijian and questions raised over the origin of the virus by Chinese diplomats. This messaging, while clearly defensive, demonstrates that when the world emerges from lockdown the Chinese government will have a lot of work to do to build international trust.

The Covid-19 crisis has brought to the fore the importance of countries being able to work together in their shared interest and the need to strengthen our wavering international organisations. It has also undermined trust in China’s global leadership and made countries wary of economic dependency on China.

In short, this is the end of globalisation as we knew it. Whether we’ll descend further into a low-trust nationalistic world, or leaders will take this as an opportunity to reflect and to do the hard yards building the global institutions needed for an interdependent world, remains to be seen.

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