In the wake of the crisis, many of the world's politicians are developing an extreme form of national selfishness, writes economist and author Stefan de Vylder.

Guest chronicle

The corona crisis demands international solidarity, not national egoism

In 2015, Bill Gates gave a short fire talk about a danger that threatens humanity: "The next outbreak? We're not ready".

He said that as a child he was most afraid of nuclear war. The parents hoarded canned food, and the children were ordered to go down to the basement if war broke out. "But today," Gates continued, "a pandemic is the biggest global threat. If something is going to kill ten million or more in the next few decades, it is a contagious virus rather than a war. ” And the question he asks, and which he already answers in the title, is a no. ”We're not ready".

By "we" Gates means the states, people and organizations of the world such as the World Health Organization WHO. And I suspect that the answer to his question today would be an even more resounding no.

Gates was not alone. But despite warnings of a WHO pandemic and scores of epidemiologists, we have seen shortcomings in crisis preparedness around the world.

The epidemic has long been downplayed by political leaders such as Donald Trump, Brazil's Bolsonaro, Turkey's Erdogan and Iran's ayatollahs. Valuable time was lost, and the messages to the citizens were contradictory and confusing.

Knowledgeable experts were waved aside. In the United States, the Trump administration had systematically cut back on key institutions such as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). There are 27 million people in the country without health insurance, and even more without sick pay or the right to babysit. Add to this just over ten million undocumented migrants who, for fear of being exposed, do what they can to avoid seeking care. Plus a few tens of millions more poor people who drag themselves to work even when they or their children are ill. Of the high-income countries, the United States is likely to face the worst human and social catastrophe.

In Europe, our political leaders are more inclined to listen to researchers, and trust in the authorities is greater. Nevertheless, we have witnessed how our crisis preparedness has weakened dramatically, not least in Sweden. Our healthcare systems are tuned, and even before the arrival of the coronavirus, overcrowding in our healthcare facilities was the rule rather than the exception. Today we pay the price for no longer having any margins.

From country to country, there are reports of shortages of doctors, nurses, medical equipment, protective masks, respirators and much more.

Can be a gigantic tragedy in poor countries

In the poor countries, and in the big cities of the middle-income countries, the situation can quickly develop into a gigantic tragedy. This is not about the margins having shrunk, but about the fact that there have never been any margins.

How many intensive care units are there in Gaza, in Brazilian favelas or in Jordanian or Greek refugee camps?

To this must be added that there is a lack of basic protective equipment for healthcare employees. And, not least: a couple of billion people of the globe lack access to soap and water daily.

If covid-19 gets a foothold in poor areas, the virus cannot be stopped. The positive thing about covid-19 in particular, however, is that young people are less seriously affected than older people. In many countries in Africa, the vast majority of the population is young. Often very young. During a corona epidemic, it can then develop quite quickly into what epidemiologists call "flock immunity": when a good part of more than half of the population has fallen ill but recovered and become immune to this particular virus, the spread of infection tends to subside. But in the meantime, many people have died. Not only the elderly, who are extremely overrepresented in the death statistics of rich countries, but also many young people with weakened immune systems as a result of, for example, malnutrition or diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria.

Politicians develop national selfishness

In the wake of the crisis, many of the world's politicians are developing an extreme form of national selfishness. The charlatans who rule some of the world's most important countries blame everything on foreigners. Within the EU, we can see up close how all sacred principles, such as the free movement of member states, can be eradicated (a development that began already when refugees from war-torn Syria knocked on the door of the EU). The fiscal policy regulations? - forget it! The ban on market-distorting subsidies to companies in crisis? - Forget it! Airlines must be rescued! The right to asylum? - Have we already forgotten! Free trade in medicines and protective equipment? - Not as long as things are needed with us!

Solidarity within the EU is blown away. And the poor countries that are now facing a national catastrophe in the wake of covid-19 cannot count on much support from the rich part of the world.

It is too early to predict how the world economy will be affected by the virus. The only sure thing we can say is that the crisis will be deep, and that the world will not really be the same.

Companies will review their chains of subcontractors. Is it really wise to put all your eggs in one basket? Maybe it would be wise to move part of the production home, or at least diversify our dependence on one or a couple of countries?

Much of this is probably both wise and necessary. Globalization has run amok. But in the worst case, a nasty form of protectionism and xenophobia can be amplified as a result of covid-19.

In contrast to what has been the case in "ordinary" financial crises, the pandemic has fundamentally changed our everyday lives. The restrictions placed on citizens in country after country can be removed if the spread of infection decreases, but the behavior that has been taught - avoid crowds, minimize social contacts, travel as little as possible, etc. - should remain as long as possible. the virus remains in society. Airlines and all kinds of small companies in the hospitality industry will go bankrupt. Hotels, restaurants, sports arenas, concert halls and seminar halls will be empty. Freelance cultural workers will get rid of most assignments. As unemployment in Sweden and the rest of the world increases, demand will fall throughout the economy.

Only when a vaccine has been developed, and a significant part of the population is vaccinated, will people - with enthusiasm! - return to theaters and restaurants, take the subway as usual, organize big parties and the grandchildren get to meet their grandparents.

Global problems require global collaboration

But a political consequence of covid-19 can also, at best, be a growing realization that global problems require global cooperation. Perhaps the international institutions we have built up together over decades, but which in recent years have been exposed to poaching, not least from the United States, can be given a new role? Maybe together we can mobilize enormous resources to combat all the threats, not least the climate threat, that the world is facing? And individual states must realize that it is important to strengthen preparedness for future crises. A society needs margins, not slim organizations where staff wears out and equipment is lacking even during normal times.

And perhaps many will realize that the change in our way of life that we are now being forced by the brutal circumstances can turn into something positive. We can manage with fewer car and air travel, fewer gadgets and a less resource-consuming consumption. Maybe we get used to video conferencing instead of air travel. Maybe we eat more locally grown vegetables instead of pork from the global animal industry, which in itself poses a constant threat of new viruses.

All crises end. This one too. But meanwhile?

This is a chronicle. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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