The new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak that started in China towards the last three weeks of 2019 has spread rapidly around the world, affecting more than 193 countries and territories, infecting over 2 million and killing more than 13 0,000 people. These figures include more than 610,000 infected in the USA and that country also suffering more than 26, 200 deaths- all within the past seven weeks.
This is not the first time that an international health crisis has occurred due to the spread of a coronavirus or other zoonotic viruses.
It would be interesting to undertake a general comparison in terms of information and data pertaining to COVID-19 and similar recent coronavirus-related diseases.
Although the source of this virus is suggested to be animals, the specific species is yet to be confirmed. The main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness and dry cough. The WHO has however noted that, those affected may also not only have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea but also develop difficulty in breathing. Clinical experts from WHO have also observed in this regard that the RO (a mathematical term to measure how contagious and reproductive an infectious or contagious disease can be) of COVID-19 can be between 2 to 2.5.
Comparably, the SARS epidemic, so termed because of its severe acute respiratory syndrome, also caused by a coronavirus, was first reported like COVID-19 in China in November 2002. This viral respiratory illness spread to 29 countries across multiple continents before it was contained in July 2003. It led to 813 deaths and 8,437 persons being infected. The R0 of SARS has been estimated at having been around 3.
After SARS came MERS (the Middle East respiratory syndrome). An active viral respiratory disease, it was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Out of the affected 27 countries, approximately 80 per cent of cases were reported by the Kingdom and has resulted in 866 deaths. Camels, according to the WHO, helped to spread the infection. The R0 of MERS, identified as a mildly contagious disease, has been classified as around 1.
Raghuram Rajan has observed that Western economies appear to have taken the possible after-effects of COVID-19 "lightly" as compared to China, Singapore and South Korea. Consequently, they are facing a drop in growth by as much as 6 percentage points this year. The widespread closure of businesses is having a huge financial impact as governments try to prevent the virus spread.
Rajan has also observed that there is a possibility that "Western countries" might see "a shift in GDP growth from about 2 percentage to 3 percentage points, to negative 4 or 5 percentage points. Each country is going to lose 5 to 6 percentage points of GDP at the very least over this year. So cumulate that, that's significantly more than $2 trillion". To get through the crisis, Mr Rajan wants to see economies working together to share resources rather than being protectionist. This observation appears to have surfaced from recent reports of countries hijacking each other's medical supplies and banning the export of precious medicine-- a dynamics that could worsen the situation further. His comments come as the IMF warned that the global economy faces its worst crisis since the 1930s depression.
It is against such a backdrop that we have seen EU finance ministers finally agree recently to a Euro 500 billion rescue package meant to overcome the growing challenges being faced by European countries hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deep divisions in Europe, where Italy and Spain have accused northern nations -- led by Germany and the Netherlands -- of not doing enough.
The deal was reached after marathon discussions in Brussels. However, the EU ministers failed to accept a demand from France and Italy to share out the cost of the crisis by issuing so-called corona bonds. The package finally agreed was also smaller than the European Central Bank (ECB) had urged. It may be mentioned that the ECB had pointed out that the bloc may need up to Euro 1.5 trillion to tackle the crisis. The main component of the rescue plan will involve the European Stability Mechanism, the EU's bailout fund, which will make Euro 240 billion available to guarantee spending by indebted countries under pressure.
The EU ministers also agreed on other measures including Euro 200 billion in guarantees from the European Investment Bank and a European Commission project for national short-time working schemes.
In the meantime, the United Nations has been struggling struggling to carve out a role for itself in the face of what may be the greatest threat since its creation.
In this context one needs to note the absence of US initiative within the United Nations and thank French President Emmanuel Macron for his efforts in helping to convene a virtual summit of leaders of the U.N.'s five big powers to coordinate a plan to prevent the virus from fueling greater conflict.
The French initiative-which included a push to adopt a resolution calling for a halt to fighting in conflicts monitored by the 15-nation Security Council-was one of multiple efforts to fill the political vacuum left by a U.S. administration that has apparently grown weary of its role as the world's organiser-in-chief. However, the proposal initially stalled amid a dispute between the United States and China over who was to blame for the emergence of the pandemic. This resulted in a sort of geopolitical vacuum and the U.N. was seen as seemingly unable to guide the world through the health calamity.
A deadlock emerged but international pressure also grew for the U.N. Security Council and the United States to work together to coordinate the international response to the virus, as they have done in the face of previous battles against HIV and Ebola within the format of international coordination and multilateralism.
Finally, fortunately, the U.N. Security Council met on April 9. Tunisia proposed a resolution that stressed not only the "importance of an urgent international action to curb the impact of COVID-19," but also urged States to provide technical expertise, testing technology, and training to countries hit by the virus. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also briefed a virtual Council meeting on the disease and mentioned that "this is the fight of a generation -- and the raison d'être of the United Nations itself." He also observed that "the pandemic poses a significant threat to the maintenance of international peace and security" that could lead to an increase in social unrest and undermine "our ability to fight the disease."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft also told the Council that "the eyes of the world are on each of us that are on this Council, and we must act to save lives."
This has been a significant movement forward. In its entirety, this effort will have to address several dimensions starting from debt relief to re-creation of employment opportunities.
We must remember that we are all in this together, but not necessarily on an equal footing. One is forced to draw attention to this as in the past few days we have watched with dismay scenarios where the developed world, particularly, Western states, have shown solidarity with their neighbours but extended insufficient economic support to the Global South.
The international community must help countries build their capacities to prepare and respond, provide epidemiological analysis and risk communication, coordinate the global supply chain, provide technical expertise and mobilise the health workforce, and accelerate research, innovation and knowledge sharing. The WHO as part of its second Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan also needs to help in the estimation of the resources that will be needed to implement national and international strategies during the next phase of the response.
Solidarity, in the true sense of the term, needs to be understood not only as intra-cooperation within a country but also inter-cooperation.
In the current scenario this must include the distribution of medical supplies and staff for treatment, support and coordination of research. This needs to also include means to undo the structures of exploitation, which make the Global South so much more vulnerable to a public health crisis. This is an opportunity whereby we can display our commitment towards the upholding of internationalism and solidarity.
The developed countries and international financial institutions also need to come forward to help lower middle income countries like Bangladesh in resolving the acute crisis that has been created within its socio-economic matrix through COVID-19's effect on its crucial garment manufacturing industry and other Small and Medium Industries. Bangladesh has more than four million garment workers, and textile and apparel products make up more than 90 per cent of the country's exports last year. The industry accounts for more than half of all manufacturing jobs in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government has been trying to help the industry through the offer of a generous stimulus package to subsidise wages, convert loans to long-term debt and offer very reasonable interest rates.
However, at this critical time the United Nations, other developed countries, the World Bank, the IMF, the ADB and the EBRD will all need to work together for countries like Bangladesh to overcome economic and financial challenges created by falling export and also reduced remittances from its expatriate workers.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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