The West is failing to rise to the challenge of coronavirus

26 March 2020

11:43 PM

26 March 2020

11:43 PM

Having apparently shaken off the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine is now in full swing. One of the more preposterous conspiracy theories they are peddling is that the spread of the disease was a deliberate attempt at subterfuge from the American government.

As in the middle of the tragic Aids epidemic in the 1980s, geopolitical conspiracy theories are running rife, and overwhelmed national governments are desperate to find someone to blame for the crisis. The notion that the United States somehow contrived to unleash such a contagious and pernicious virus on its economic rival, however, is simply absurd. In a globalised world, with interconnected markets, goods and people, it would have been near-impossible to ever fully contain the spread of this virus within China’s borders.

It was inevitable that it would eventually reach the United States, a nation that appears singularly ill-equipped for this crisis. The alchemy of its deeply polarised society, atomised federal system of government, libertarian national psyche, shamefully inadequate health service, and President incapable of harnessing institutions, creates the perfect environment for the virus’s chaotic spread.

This global crisis needs an international response but on the world stage, too, the United States has been unable to exercise its hard and soft power. Were this a humanitarian crisis, or a natural disaster, the United States would have been first on the scene – as it stands, it has retreated from America First to America Only.

Rather than seizing the opportunity to come together and cooperate, the West has instead revealed itself to be incapable of rising to the geopolitical stakes. There is every indication that we may come out of this crisis even more fragile and dysfunctional than before.

The centre of intergovernmental cooperation in the West, the European Union, began the crisis in a familiar state of inertia, scrambling on the back foot without any practical tools at its disposal. As member states closed their borders and hoarded national supplies, EU institutions looked on helplessly.

In the end, an EU export ban on medical equipment was hastily announced, emphasising the collective security of the single market. The ECB also promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect the Eurozone. Germany began sending protective equipment to the hardest-hit regions in Italy and accommodated vulnerable French patients at its hospitals. The wheels of solidarity grinded into motion, but the bitter taste of the initial hesitation will surely linger.

A month ago, China’s status as the origin and epicentre of the virus raised questions about the long-term implications for the authoritarian regime. Having apparently broken the back of the first wave of infections, China has now emerged from the ashes, ready to take advantage of a sclerotic Western response. With its propaganda machine in full throttle, the CCP is rewriting history about the origins of the virus, and marketing itself as a benevolent global actor delivering much-needed supplies to the rest of the world.

Drunk on the confidence of their early escape, China’s leaders are wasting no time in seeking to leverage the global nature of the coronavirus crisis to their own benefit. As Britain and other Western economies grind to a halt, China will be reopening factories and making up for lost time. While their authoritarianism played a huge role in the growth of the pandemic, the apparent effectiveness of their ruthless response is portrayed as another example of the fragility of liberal democracies.

The West was given a seven-week head start on this crisis and has failed at almost every turn to use it as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of allies and relationships. Rather than developing a coordinated approach to the distribution of existing supplies, the closure of borders, and the manufacture of crucial new materials, Western nations have been consumed with the sheer scale of their domestic challenges.

Covid-19 is bringing the global economy to its knees, and it may feel difficult to imagine the world that lies beyond the crisis. For liberal democracies already under strain from insurgent nationalist and populist forces, there will be a renewed urgency to convince citizens of the ongoing value of global connectivity and openness.

While the West pulls apart, authoritarian states such as China are looking to the future and working to solidify their strategic advantage. It is not too late for Britain, and our allies, to regain some lost ground and project a more unified and collaborative show of strength.

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