Every government for itself? Virus poses difficult dilemmas
Employees of the Istanbul Municipality wearing protective gear disinfects a subway carriage to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, in Istanbul on March 12, 2020. Turkey announced on March 11, 2020 its first coronavirus case, a man who had recently travelled to Europe and is in good health. Turkey has announced several measures in recent weeks to try and stop the virus reaching the country, including thermal cameras at airports, cancelling flights to affected countries and closing its border with Iran.
AFP/Yasin Akgul

Every government for itself? Virus poses difficult dilemmas

Pierre Donadieu (Agence France-Presse) - March 13, 2020 - 8:40am

PARIS, France — With disparate and at times conflicting responses to the deadly coronavirus outbreak, governments across the globe are abandoning any pretence of joint action and instead putting their own health, economic and diplomatic interests first, analysts say.

From the United States to Europe, governments have in recent days announced new border controls, suspended air traffic and rail links and banned travellers from countries deemed high-risk. 

But with stock markets suffering their biggest one-day plunges in three decades and the spectre of recession looming large, world leaders must carefully weigh public health against a full-blown economic crisis, experts say.

"China and Italy have taken a gamble by giving priority to health. But balancing the economy is vitally important and underestimated," says Anne-Marie Moulin, research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. 

Economic analyst Juliette Declercq, founder of London-based JDI Research, said it is impossible to know the true impact of the actions governments are taking.

"The question now is how long the recession will last," she said.

Temptation to retreat

Beyond economic interests, it is also diplomacy which hangs by a thread.

Even in the open and free-trade world of 2020, the temptation to withdraw to protect the national population in the face of a pandemic is great.

US President Donald Trump angered his European allies with a 30-day travel ban he said was an "aggressive effort" to protect Americans from a "foreign" virus.

While the European Union's initial show of unity over the pandemic had promised a coordinated effort to save the economy, responses still differ from government to government.

European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde on Thursday slammed "the complacency and slow motion process" of governments in the eurozone area in particular.

Perhaps in response to the ECB's chiding, French President Emmanuel Macron late Thursday called for "a national and European stimulus plan", saying measures announced by the ECB earlier in the day were not enough.

But for now, at a time when masks and hand sanitiser are harder to find, some countries such as Germany and France have banned the export of protective medical equipment.

EU countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Austria have put controls on their borders. 

So how can governments protect their people without offending their economic partners? 

This is perhaps a question that Iran took a little too long to ask itself at the beginning of the epidemic, by delaying taking action on Chinese travellers, one analyst said. 

"The regime did everything it could to conceal the existence and spread of this virus when the whole world knew that China at the time was the centre of its spread," Azadeh Kian, a political science teacher in Paris who specialises in Iran, told AFP. 

"The Iranians continued to act as if nothing had happened for the sake of their relations with China." 

China "is a crucial partner to the Iranian regime, the biggest buyer of its oil. That explains why they did not take any measures," Kian said, adding that it was "through the foreign media" that the population was able to learn about the extent of the epidemic in their country. 

Freedom vs health

Governments are faced with an equally delicate trade-off between respect for individual freedoms and the fight against the spread of the virus.

"In the face of an epidemic, it's a bit incongruous to let people do what they want," says Moulin.  

With its drastic containment measures, China seems to be getting the first results in curbing the epidemic.

"China is unique in that it has a political system that can gain public compliance with extreme measures," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of public health law at Georgetown University in the United States. 

But "its use of social control and intrusive surveillance are not a good model for other countries", he said.

The chaos surrounding cancelled sporting events perfectly illustrates the challenges governments face, said Vincent Chaudel, sports economist and founder of the Observatory of Sports Business.   

"Holding events behind closed doors is the least worst option," says Chaudel. "If it starts to reach the players in the game, it can change everything."

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: January 16, 2021 - 2:04pm

Follow this page for updates on a mysterious pneumonia outbreak that has struck dozens of people in China.

January 16, 2021 - 2:04pm

India is set to begin one of the world's largest coronavirus vaccination drives Saturday as the pandemic spread at a record pace and global COVID-19 deaths surged past two million.

The World Health Organization has called for accelerating vaccine rollouts worldwide as well as ramping up efforts to study the sequencing of the virus, which has infected more than 93 million people globally since it was first detected in China in late 2019.

India, home to 1.3 billion people, has the world's second-largest caseload, and the government has given approvals to two vaccines -- though one is yet to complete clinical trials -- aiming to inoculate around 300 million people by July. — AFP

January 16, 2021 - 10:26am

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleges there were COVID-like illnesses among staff at a Chinese virology institute in autumn 2019, casting further blame on Beijing as health experts arrived in the country to probe the pandemic's origins.

The top US diplomat in a statement urged the World Health Organization team that landed Thursday in Wuhan, where COVID-19 was first detected, to "press the government of China" on the "new information." 

"The United States government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the (Wuhan Institute of Virology) became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses," Pompeo says. — AFP

January 16, 2021 - 9:06am

The global death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed two million, with the World Health Organization urging mass vaccinations as the pandemic progresses at a record pace. 

As of 1825 GMT on Friday, at least 2,000,066 people worldwide had been confirmed dead of the virus that first emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, according to an AFP tally. 

The grim milestone came as US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said shipments of its vaccines would slow for a period in late January -- a blow to fledgling campaigns to immunize people against the virus. — AFP

January 15, 2021 - 5:37pm

China has sent over 20,000 rural residents living in the epicentre of the country's latest virus outbreak to state-run quarantine facilities, as Beijing on Friday reported the worst nationwide figures since March.

The country had largely brought the virus under control after strict measures including mass testing and travel restrictions, but recent weeks have seen numbers climbing again, especially in the north, prompting a fresh wave of lockdowns.

Another 144 infections were reported by the National Health Commission on Friday -- the highest single-day tally since March last year -- mostly in Hebei province where more than 22 million people are in lockdown. — AFP

January 15, 2021 - 12:52pm

Germany has recorded more than two million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, the Robert Koch Institute health agency says Friday.

Europe's most populous country added another 22,368 cases over the past 24 hours, it said, bringing the total to 2,000,958.

It also reported another 1,113 fatalities from Covid-19, taking the overall death toll up to 44,994. — AFP

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