CAN HISTORY HELP US OUT OF THE PANDEMIC?
By Connie Hatt: POLITICAL Columnist
From the socially distanced rendition of Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ on VE Day to narratives of the pandemic acting as a ‘great leveller’, unifying rhetoric throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been saturated with parallels to the Second World War (WWII).
As a nation, our proclivity for harking back to WWII to engender national unity is well established. However, invoking rose-tinted nostalgia is a very different undertaking to engaging with the realities and lessons of Britain’s past. As we contemplate a post-COVID-19 world, there is value in considering the policy models that national leaders in 1918 and 1945 adopted, and where international policy has typically succeeded and failed following seismic events.
Oxford Professor Ian Goldin has argued that, at this juncture, politicians negotiating a post-COVID-19 world-order should be guided by the outward-facing vision of international co-operation following WWII and reflect on the hostile factions and nationalistic tendencies of the interwar period. From 1918, the US drew inwards adopting an isolationist policy, factions in Europe deepened, and when Wall Street crashed in 1929, a global depression took hold, priming the ground for Nazism in Germany.
Now, as then, Goldin argues, there are no national walls high enough to keep the problems the world faces at bay; challenges for the climate, technology, national economies and global health know no borders.
However, from the first reports of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, tribalism quickly took hold, with Chinese people in the UK being the target of racial abuse. As the virus spread, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic, Trump’s isolationist bent was manifested in his pressuring of the Minnesota manufacturing giant, 3M, to cease exporting face masks. This move served to exacerbate domestic Personal Protective Equipment shortages and threaten international co-operation.
Over the past week, tensions between the UK and the EU over access to COVID-19 vaccines reached boiling point. Residual tensions from tortured and protracted Brexit negotiations surfaced: first over EU access to the limited AstraZeneca vaccine supply and then, briefly, over the Bloc’s export controls on vaccines to Northern Ireland.
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Although the EU has been quick to backtrack on this hasty move, Die Zeit, the German newspaper, dubbed AstraZeneca the ‘best advert for Brexit’, arguing that the European Commission ‘is acting slowly, bureaucratically and is being protectionist.’
Far from promising, these manoeuvres suggest that impetus for international co-operation is already waning. Yet, history shows us that it is possible for effective long-term international responses to be drafted in the midst of seismic events. As early as August 1941, when Churchill and Roosevelt drafted the Atlantic Charter, plans for the United Nations were conceived.
In response to the upheaval of WWII, the US devised the outward-facing Marshall Plan offering economic assistance to European countries ravaged by war, setting the scene for the establishment of Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) in 1948.
Yet, nationalistic fervour is alive and well today and there is a popular yearning for a return ‘back to normal’. Concerns that insular policies and protectionist sentiments will prevail, are not unfounded.
As we have already seen, national concerns for economic recovery could outweigh humanitarian ones. Rich countries have bought up 53% of the 8 most promising vaccines, despite making up only 14% of the world’s population. WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris declared that vulnerable groups and health workers across the globe should be prioritised for vaccination before the wider public in wealthier countries. South Africa’s leading expert on the pandemic, Prof Salim Abdool Karim, has echoed this sentiment, arguing it would be ‘unconscionable’ for countries to ‘start vaccinating low risk young people, when we here in Africa haven’t even started vaccinating healthcare workers and the elderly.’
It would be foolish to ignore the likely significance of the role of China in battling the current and future pandemics. President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, has called for a scaling up of cooperation on the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, stressing China’s ongoing role in increasing the accessibility and affordability of vaccines. Already, Serbia has achieved the second-fastest vaccine rollout in Europe thanks to China’s delivery of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses.
Worryingly, there is a real risk that vaccines will be used as bargaining chips in poorer countries where wealthier countries have interests. The answer, perhaps, lies in ratifying a bold, brave international strategy akin to the United Nations or Marshall Plan, as a crucial step in progressing some of these problematic and loaded issues.