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China provides leadership on Covid-19 as the US flounders

Saturday March 14 2020

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Thousands of youth graduate from Generation Kenya, a programme facilitating youth empowerment, at KICC on March 15, 2019. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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When America sneezes, the world catches a cold; this statement held true for the decades before China became a rival superpower and the “world’s factory”.

Now, when China sneezes, we all catch the flu. And the outbreak of the deadly Covid-19 is proof.

The new coronavirus, which broke out in Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province last year, has morphed into the largest global crisis since the 2008–2009 financial crisis. Pundits are warning that if the gloomier projections of Covid-19 unfold, the world will face one of its worst peacetime crises of modern times.

Between December 31, 2019, and March 13, no less than 133,860 people worldwide have contracted the virus – over 67,000 of them have recovered while 4,967 have died.

Not surprisingly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic on Wednesday. On Friday, Kenya confirmed its first-ever case, raising Africa’s tally to more than a 100 cases.

Sadly, even as the virus spreads, devastating the earth’s poorer nations, the world’s largest powers are dithering.


Distrust and beggar-thy-neighbour policies are impeding a collective response to the pandemic and fuelling its spread. The virus is testing the limits of populism, isolationism, unilateralism, parochial nationalisms, xenophobia and anti-globalisation.

Instead of presenting a unified response, the world’s powers are behaving badly, turning the calamity into a US-China diplomatic clash in a geopolitical jostling for global influence.

On Tuesday, China’s President Xi Jinping visited the city of Wuhan and declared success in the fight against the virus. As of Friday, China had 80,954 confirmed cases, but Beijing has announced that it has fundamentally contained the spread of the virus in its hardest-hit areas.

“The spread of the epidemic has been basically contained in Hubei and Wuhan,” China’s United Nations (UN) ambassador Zhang Jun declared in a widely circulated letter to representatives of UN’s 193 member states.

China’s rise from the ashes of Covid-19, like the proverbial phoenix, is giving hope to humanity. Beijing is using its spectacular success in rolling back the virus as a powerful tool to project its soft power globally and to boost its reputation as a global leader.

China’s focus on international cooperation reflects its bridge-building approach to global issues. Post-Covid-19 Beijing has to include the epidemic as a key plank of its Belt and Road Initiative, the premier symbol of globalisation in the 21st century.

Laudably, Xi has pledged $20 million to help the WHO to help improve public health systems in poor countries.

“We are ready to strengthen solidarity with the rest of the international community to jointly fight the epidemic,” said ambassador Jun.

On the other hand, critics depict President Donald Trump’s Washington as mocking the virus.

Certainly, the pandemic is a campaign issue in the November 2020 presidential election.

Shockingly, when the virus struck, Trump saw the outbreak as good for America.

“We’re going to have Americans staying home instead of going and spending the money in other countries”, he said mordantly. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons the job numbers are so good,” he added.

But with 1,663 confirmed cases by Friday, the game has changed. America has declared the virus a national emergency, and imposed a lockdown.

White House has trained its guns on China, typically using the crisis to point blame at Beijing.

It criticised China for the handling of the outbreak that allowed the disease to spread so rapidly. Washington wonks accused China of not using best practices, and instead orchestrating a cover-up of the outbreak in Wuhan.

All this was calibrated to buttress the narrative that Beijing was too sluggish and secretive in its early response to the outbreak to be trusted as a global leader.

Luckily, this criticism galvanised Beijing to quickly take charge of the operations from the ineffectual Hubei Provincial leadership and turned the tide against the disease.

But Washington has stuck to its “America First” isolationist approach, directing all its energy to domestic measures to protect its citizens against the virus.

America has significantly rolled back its contribution to global preparedness to combat pandemics.

In 2018, its pandemic preparedness office proposed a slash of financial contributions to WHO. In February this year, the office authorised $2.5 billion – including $1.25 billion in new money – to fight Covid-19. No money was included in this budget for WHO or for any other programme aimed at supporting international response to pandemics.

Covid-19 is rolling back decades of globalisation. In response to the virus, the UN, its member states and organisations are scaling back key conferences and meetings around the world.

China has shut down factories and cities to contain the virus, thus rolling back economic globalisation in a world where America’s Apple gets its parts from China.

As the main casualty of the virus, China has a lot of heavy lifting to do to revitalise global trade.

 It has to counter a new bout of xenophobia  – senior Washington officials labelled Covid-19 the “Wuhan virus”, and African media carried such headlines as “China virus”.

Africa is also facing a new wave of xenophobia. The new coronavirus is feeding into anti-migration narratives and programmes, powerfully pushing the world back to “fortress Europe”.

Former Italy Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, whose country is in lockdown, having reported the highest number of cases in Europe (15,113 as of Friday), has called for the closing of borders with Africa.

In the end, what matters most is cooperation and a coordinated response to the disease, not blame-games.

Prof Kagwanja is the Chief Executive of the Africa Institute and former Government Adviser.