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This preface dwells considerably on the novel coronavirus, though the book is not about the virus. It just happens that the challenges posed by the outbreak—specifically the absence of a collective global response—are emblematic of the core concern of this book.
When a mysterious disease broke out in Wuhan, China, in January 2020, the global community largely saw it as a Chinese problem. As mega cities go, Wuhan was rather remote in the world’s consciousness. So, for most people, a disease that broke out in Wuhan would probably die in Wuhan.
Not so, as it turned out. The disease that was subsequently named COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 was soon to spread around the world. U.S. President Donald Trump labeled it the Chinese virus. In clinical terms, this could mean that COVID-19 afflicts only the Chinese in much the same way that the mad-cow disease afflicts cows. But COVID-19 has proven not to have regard for nationality or geography. In fact, its subsequent outbreak in the European countries of Italy and Spain soon surpassed that of China. By June 2020, the outbreaks in the US had overtaken all others in number of cases and deaths. In due course, almost every country suffered outbreaks.
Beyond its rapid global reach, the outbreak manifested two overarching takeaways. The first is that by exposing the underpreparedness of the richest countries to cope with a major medical challenge, it substantially erased the distinction between rich and poor countries. Some of the most advanced countries of Europe—Italy, Spain, and France in particular—were overwhelmed by the outbreak. Meanwhile, regions of the world that were known for their incapacity successfully forestalled the worst—at least at the time of this writing.
Except for South Africa, even African countries have fared relatively well. That’s quite paradoxical for a continent that is most associated with diseases and incapacity. Then there was the anomaly of Cuba—an impoverished country that has long borne the weight of U.S. sanctions—sending a medical contingent to Italy when that EU country was sorely distressed.
The second and more pertinent takeaway is that the outbreak exposed a profound lack of global cohesion in the face of a collective threat. As the virus exploded in country after country, each one was essentially left to fend for itself. At the height of their afflictions, for example, Italy, Spain, and France all fumed at the EU for failing to come to their aid. To be sure, there were spotty gestures of assistance around the world, as illustrated by the Cuban example and others. But they lacked cohesion and an overall strategy. Rather than global coordination, individual countries shut their borders and banned international flights. There was little regard for the global implications or even patterns of transmission.
Meanwhile, as the virus suffocated millions around the world, some world leaders traded barbs over its origin. President Trump’s on-again-off-again label of the novel coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” was the first shot. The Chinese—not ones to take any slight lightly—fired back that the United States is the source of the virus. Trump countered that China was not forthcoming on the operations of its virus research facility in Wuhan. China then threatened to stop all cooperation if the United States continued to blame it. And Trump threatened to toughen sanctions against China. It was a diplomatic fracas.
Even more illustrative of the lack of collective action was the bidding war between the United States and Germany for a pharmaceutical company. As reported by Reuters in March 2020 (quoting German newspapers), President Donald Trump offered financial inducements to CureVac to lure the German pharmaceutical company to the United States. CureVac was believed to be at the cusp of developing a vaccine and Trump wanted it exclusively for the US. According to the accounts, the German government countered the U.S. bid. And so CureVac remained in Germany.
U.S. officials in Berlin and Washington denied the reports outright or said they were exaggerated. CureVac itself said it was not for sale. But comments by German officials indirectly confirmed the thrust of the report. Whatever may have been the case, the mere fact that the issue arose at all is emblematic.
In fact, the US/Germany quarrel became only one case of what came to be known as vaccine nationalism. Rather than collaboration, different countries raced to be the first to produce an effective vaccine. There were reports of countries hacking others’ labs with the presumed goal of stealing their formula. It was not just for purposes of first access, it was also a matter of bragging rights.
In all probability, the absence of a cohesive global response relates in part to Trump’s “America first” policy. When he touted that policy during the 2016 presidential election campaign, it sounded much like another campaign rhetoric. The expectation was that, at worst, Trump would tinker around the edges of global relations. Instead, he shattered it.
Even before he was sworn into office in January 2017, Trump made clear that his “America first” policy entailed a dismantling of existing norms in world trade and diplomacy. First, he declared a trade war against China, the EU, neighboring Canada and Mexico, and many other countries and regions. Then he questioned the usefulness of NATO, the military alliance that has been the bedrock of European stability since World War II.
Meanwhile, Trump courted friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. And so, EU leaders began to wonder aloud whether they should begin to discount the trans-Atlantic bond that had underpinned Europe’s military, diplomatic, and economic policies for three-fourths of a century.
It was in this context of diplomatic turbulence that COVID-19 struck. So, the lack of global solidarity in tackling it was hardly a mystery.
An even more fundamental and enduring factor is what is referred to in this book as cultural chauvinism. This is the tendency of peoples of the world to think of themselves as superior to others and therefore more valuable. It is a tendency that manifests in matters of religion, social values, political culture, and even the extent that others are deemed human. The matter of vaccine nationalism may well be an example. The broader manifestations are what this book is all about.