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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

The coronavirus pandemic has already become the main event of the leap year, relegating other dramatic news of recent months to the background. It also turned out to be the most severe stress test for the global economic and financial system, for many international organizations and public administration mechanisms in individual countries. This test is far from complete since the peak of the pandemic is still far away, and the repercussions of the global spread of 2019-nCoV (aka SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19) have yet to be assessed. Nevertheless, some preliminary conclusions can already be made. Unfortunately, these findings are disappointing.

The preliminary results of the coronavirus test on humanity reveal clear signs of a political and psychological immunodeficiency or, if you like, an absence of the instinct that is inherent in any biological species to protect one’s own population.

We must admit that four months after the start of the pandemic, the world continues its everyday squabbling over momentary disagreements, petty vanity and tactical gains and losses. In other words, the pandemic is perceived not so much as a global bug that needs to be fixed at all costs, but as a new feature of world politics that can be used to advance your interests and counter those of your opponents and competitors. Paraphrasing the famous saying by King Frederick William I of Prussia, modern statesmen may well say: “A pandemic is a pandemic, but the war should be on schedule.”

However, maybe we should blame the whole thing solely on unscrupulous politicians, insatiable defense corporations and irresponsible financial fraudsters? Unfortunately, I cannot agree with this statement. The current pandemic often exposes unseemly features of the human character, not only in the abstract “them” but also in the very specific “us”. All these politicians, corporations and banks turn out to be just as irresponsible, unscrupulous and short-sighted as allowed by the existing social demand.

The coronavirus pandemic has already become the main event of the leap year, relegating other dramatic news of recent months to the background. It also turned out to be the most severe stress test for the global economic and financial system, for many international organizations and public administration mechanisms in individual countries. This test is far from complete since the peak of the pandemic is still far away, and the repercussions of the global spread of 2019-nCoV (aka SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19) have yet to be assessed. Nevertheless, some preliminary conclusions can already be made. Unfortunately, these findings are disappointing.

Most experts, journalists and politicians focus on the economic and financial impact of the pandemic. How will the coronavirus affect global trade and investment? What will happen to international supply chains? How will global financial markets respond? How will the geography and scale of cross-border migration flows change?

All these questions are, without a doubt, fundamental. And not only for “them”, i.e. governments, top multinational companies and financial holdings but also for “us”, i.e. ordinary people in all corners of the planet. It is already clear today that for a lot of people, life will be divided into “before” and “after” the pandemic: some will have to give up their travelling hobby, some will not be able to get a raise, and some will switch to remote work or be tempted by the possibility of downshifting.

Nonetheless, we should not forget about the political, or rather political and psychological, consequences. They are not as noticeable, but no less important, both for “us” and “them”. Indicators of global political trends and sentiments today are as alarming as are the indicators of global economic trends. The preliminary results of the coronavirus test on humanity reveal clear signs of a political and psychological immunodeficiency or, if you like, an absence of the instinct that is inherent in any biological species to protect one’s own population.

All for One or Each for Themselves?

All epidemics, from the Athenian or so-called Thucydidean” plague (430 BC) to the Ebola epidemic (2014–2015), ultimately ended one way or another. Sooner or later, the current coronavirus pandemic will also be under control. However, different epidemics affected the course of world history in different ways. Some of them could be compared to what programmers call a bug: a random error in a computer program that leads to an unplanned and undesirable result. Others took on the character of a feature, i.e. became an organic property, essential aspect, characteristic trait, permanent function and even “additional functionality” of the program.

The first scenario (bug) is likely if humanity or an individual population that has been affected by the epidemic is able to draw the necessary conclusions from the disaster and prevent it from recurring in the future. The second scenario (feature) is inevitable if appropriate conclusions are not drawn, the lessons of the disaster are forgotten, and the epidemic does not lead to any changes in the usual political priorities, management approaches, psychological attitudes and the old way of life. A bug is perceived as a problem, a feature is seen as an inevitability. You fix a bug, but you live with a feature. Let’s examine the specific case of the current coronavirus pandemic.

Logic suggests that the population should rally against a common threat, especially when it comes to the homo sapiens species, which is at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Man, as we all know, is a social being. Putting aside internal disagreements and group conflicts – at least for a while – mankind should focus on finding a solution to a truly universal problem.

And what are we seeing now, when humanity is faced with a progressing pandemic? Political leaders are remarkably reluctant to make significant changes to their international agendas. The spread of coronavirus neither prevented the recent exacerbation of the situation in Syria nor the breakdown of ceasefire agreements in Libya. Iran's transformation into one of the leading centers of the pandemic did not prompt Washington to attempt even a symbolic easing of its economic sanctions against Tehran. Nor did the pandemic become an incentive for Russia and Saudi Arabia to make mutual concessions during the OPEC+ negotiations, which could have prevented the collapse in oil prices and the subsequent panic on global financial markets. In each of these and in many other cases, the universal interests of the self-preservation of the human population have invariably been pushed into the background for the sake of opportunistic political, economic or other group interests.

Moreover, the pandemic itself has started to be perceived as an opportunity to strengthen one's position in geopolitical and economic competition. United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Louis Ross is optimistic that the coronavirus epidemic "will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America." A number of Western economists were quick to announce that the pandemic would spell the end of the "Chinese era" in global manufacturing and the final victory of the United States in the economic confrontation with Beijing. Of course, the fact that China was the first victim of the coronavirus presented an excellent opportunity to talk about the inefficiency of authoritarian systems in preventing epidemics, about the redundancy of the restrictive measures taken by the Chinese authorities, to reiterate concerns about the human rights situation in China, and so on.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials have not once missed an opportunity to refer to the culprit as the “Chinese” (“Wuhan”) virus. In turn, Chinese officials have speculated that the virus may have been brought to Wuhan by the U.S. military, who had participated in the Military World Games held in the city last October.

All in all, we must admit that four months after the start of the pandemic, the world continues its everyday squabbling over momentary disagreements, petty vanity and tactical gains and losses. In other words, the pandemic is perceived not so much as a global bug that needs to be fixed at all costs, but as a new feature of world politics that can be used to advance your interests and counter those of your opponents and competitors. Paraphrasing the famous saying by King Frederick William I of Prussia, modern statesmen may well say: “A pandemic is a pandemic, but the war should be on schedule.”

However, maybe we should blame the whole thing solely on unscrupulous politicians, insatiable defense corporations and irresponsible financial fraudsters? Unfortunately, I cannot agree with this statement. The current pandemic often exposes unseemly features of the human character, not only in the abstract “them” but also in the very specific “us”. All these politicians, corporations and banks turn out to be just as irresponsible, unscrupulous and short-sighted as allowed by the existing social demand.

"You Die Today, and I Die Tomorrow”?

It is natural for the human consciousness (or rather the subconscious) to reject negative scenarios. We are even less willing to consider such scenarios as directly affecting ourselves and our loved ones. This is especially true for countries and even entire continents that have enjoyed peace and the absence of obvious threats to personal security for several generations. Hence the numerous instances of the frivolous attitude to the pandemic at its initial stages, especially in European countries, where we saw a defiant unpreparedness and unwillingness to follow recommendations and even direct orders from the authorities. "They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views," wrote Albert Camus in his novel The Plague. "How should they have given a thought to anything like the plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences."

At the service of infantile optimists is a whole army of experts who urge us not to dramatize the situation. They inform us that the number of people killed by the new virus over the course of the entire pandemic is comparable to the number of people dying of tuberculosis in the world every day. They remind us that even ordinary flu leads to more deaths today than the coronavirus has managed to cause. They tell us that in the United States, for example, car accidents claim more than a hundred lives every day, and yet no one in America is thinking of banning cars because of that.

When, finally, ordinary people are forced to open their eyes to the true extent of the problem, they often act no better than the cynical and selfish politicians. Of course, the pandemic has already provided many examples of human solidarity, civil initiative and true heroism. And yet.

In the relatively prosperous south of Italy, agitated activists refused to accept refugees from the disadvantaged north of the country, and in some places this reluctance even led them to block roads and railway stations. In the Poltava region of Ukraine, local residents threw stones at buses with fellow citizens evacuated from Wuhan. Fearing the spread of the virus on the African continent, the public in many African countries remained deaf to the requests of their compatriots to help them with their evacuation from Wuhan. In the United States, the federal government was forced to accommodate potential carriers of the virus at military bases. Also telling is the case of the Westerdam cruise ship, which, under pressure from the public, was not allowed to moor in the ports of Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand for two weeks, until, finally, the passengers were able to go ashore in the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. All of this was despite the fact that not a single infected person was found on board.

Historical experience suggests that the victims of any epidemic or natural disaster are invariably those social, economic, ethnic and religious groups that were the most disadvantaged even before the emergency. These groups are most vulnerable to the threat of the dissolution of traditional social ties, lack of quality medical care, increasing unemployment and other problems. These groups are also the ones that are most often blamed for the consequences of disasters, such as the Jewish pogroms that rolled over Europe during the famous Black Death epidemic of 1348–1351. Under extreme conditions, the processes of social and cultural polarization tend to accelerate, and the much-needed social cohesion in the face of a common threat becomes extremely difficult to achieve.

Carrying this general pattern over to the international level, it would be fair to conclude that, in the event of a global pandemic, the least vulnerable and least wealthy states and territories will ultimately be the most vulnerable. It is one thing when the virus spreads throughout affluent Europe or the effectively managed China. It is an entirely different matter if, for example, the epicenter is Afghanistan, Idlib in Syria, South Sudan or the Gaza Strip. It is hard to imagine the scale of consequences a pandemic may have in places with ravaged infrastructure, numerous hotbeds of political radicalism and extremism and constant outbreaks of armed violence.

What is easy to imagine, though, is how right-wing populists in Europe or extremists in the Middle East will use this situation to strengthen their positions. In fact, they are already exploiting the pandemic heavily, because for them the coronavirus is definitely a feature, not a bug, a novel opportunity, or a new threat. In Europe, the pandemic strengthens the arguments of the right-wing parties in Italy, France, Spain and Poland, who demand that borders be closed and the flow of international migration stopped. One interpretation that arose in the Middle East is that the coronavirus was cast upon the Chinese as a punishment for oppressing Muslims. In Russia, the virus works for those who espouse total isolationism, prophesize the irreversible downfall of the West and preach eschatological optimism.

What about the social responsibility of the media? The pandemic is becoming a source of endless speculation, opportunistic propaganda and misinformation. Conspiracy theories have flourished: the virus is declared to be a product of secret laboratories, and its distribution the diabolical plan of powerful dark forces nesting either in Washington, or Beijing, or Jerusalem, or possibly even Moscow. Fears of the pandemic, fueled by politicians and journalists, are nourishing dark instincts, stirring up the muddy waters that are inevitably present at the bottom of any national identity. Demand for various “horror stories”, in turn, stimulates the supply – and the shabby inventions of countless conspiracy theorists are snapped up by the townsfolk just as soap, salt and matches were swept from the shelves during previous epidemics.

An Epidemic of Minds, Not Bodies

Mankind’s readiness for collective action in the fight against common challenges – be it epidemics, natural disasters or man-made disasters – is generally declining. The systematic cultivation of nationalism and national exclusiveness, the implicit or explicit promotion of xenophobia, the arrogant disregard for international law, the prioritizing of tactical interests over strategic ones – all these features of world politics that we have observed in recent years will not pass without consequence.

Just a couple of decades ago, the willingness for international cooperation was much higher. When the so-called “bird flu” epidemic broke out at the beginning of the century, U.S. epidemiologists immediately came to the aid of their Chinese colleagues in identifying the virus (H5N1). As a result, the extremely dangerous bird flu outbreak (its mortality rate reached 60%) was nipped in the bud, and only several hundred people fell victim to the epidemic. Of course, those were the blessed times when the United States still had no restrictions on scientific cooperation with China, and the People’s Republic was not at all considered an implacable foe of the United States.

Throughout the many years since the deadly epidemic of the Ebola virus, authoritative epidemiologists have time and again proposed a wide variety of measures to bolster international cooperation in combating dangerous infectious diseases. But the new pandemic demonstrated the weakness and fragility of international organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO). Who in the world today believes that the WHO can become a truly effective global headquarters for the fight against coronavirus? Judging by the amount of resources provided to the organization, almost no one: the WHO's total budget does not exceed the budget of a big American hospital. This is despite the fact that the organization’s outstanding experience in countering dangerous diseases is beyond doubt: just recall the global eradication of smallpox and the undeniable successes in the fight against polio and malaria.

Societies in most countries of the world have ceased to trust international organizations, no longer seeing them as reliable mechanisms to counter epidemics and other threats. Even in the European Union, the most important decisions regarding the coronavirus today are made in national capitals, and not in Brussels. But societies do not trust their own governments either, suspecting them of concealing the true extent of the pandemic, as well as of using the pandemic for their narrow political purposes. Governments, for their part, do not trust each other, and that applies not only to potential adversaries and competitors, but also to allies and partners. As a result, a vicious circle of total distrust is emerging, which is an ideal breeding ground for any epidemic.

It appears that the upcoming G20 Summit in Riyadh in November 2020 will be mainly devoted to the problems posed by the imminent global recession, by new challenges to the global financial system and by the coronavirus. But can humanity wait until November, in the meantime confining itself to helpless attempts to stop the pandemic in each individual country? Is it worth hoping that a miraculous vaccine will be invented in the coming months, or that the coronavirus will not spread during the hot summer period? Should we convene an emergency G20 meeting to discuss the current pandemic?

It appears that without unrelenting pressure from the public, governments will not be willing to take collective action, still perceiving the coronavirus not as a bug, but as a feature of world politics. Such an approach will inevitably doom homo sapiens to degradation and, ultimately, to extinction. And this does not only include the abstract “them” such as governments and corporations, but also the very specific “us”. If not today, it could be in ten or fifty years. If not from coronavirus, it could be from climate change or global nuclear war. What other signal does humanity need to finally wake up the self-preservation instinct that is inherent in any biological species?


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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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