Telling COVID’s story: At UN, lead­ers spin virus sto­ry­lines

Malta Independent - - World - PETER PRENGAMAN

The sub­ject: coro­n­avirus. The sta­tus: ur­gent. The so­lu­tions: as di­verse as the na­tions they lead.

With the 75th an­nual U.N. Gen­eral As­sem­bly re­duced to recorded speeches be­cause of the pan­demic, lead­ers are us­ing this week as an op­por­tu­nity to de­pict the pan­demic from the van­tage points of their na­tions and them­selves — and present their vi­sions of ef­forts to fight the virus and ad­vo­cate what they be­lieve must be done.

A smat­ter­ing of myr­iad ideas from speeches on Tues­day, the first day of the gen­eral de­bate:

— South African Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa called for a sus­pen­sion of in­ter­est pay­ments on African na­tions’ debt and re­newed fo­cus on erad­i­cat­ing global poverty.

— Chilean Pres­i­dent Se­bastián Piñera called on pow­er­ful na­tions to work to­gether and stop gen­er­at­ing “a wor­ri­some lack of lead­er­ship.”

— Philip­pines Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte echoed a call from many lead­ers when he said that once an ef­fec­tive vac­cine is de­vel­oped, it must be made avail­able to all na­tions.

Not sur­pris­ingly in such speeches, aimed at both do­mes­tic au­di­ences and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, heads of state were pre­sent­ing their own ef­forts in fa­vor­able light while some­times harshly crit­i­ciz­ing other coun­tries or tak­ing jabs at the United Na­tions.

This year’s theme — “reaf­firm­ing our col­lec­tive com­mit­ment to mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism” — comes at a time of ex­treme phys­i­cal iso­la­tion be­tween cit­i­zens in re­spec­tive coun­tries and be­tween na­tions, a mo­ment when in­ter­na­tional travel has de­clined sharply. It also comes as the world ap­proaches 1 mil­lion deaths from the virus since De­cem­ber, adding ur­gency to the search for so­lu­tions.

“The lead­ers of our na­tions are not per­son­ally present. They will not be able to in­ter­act with each other,” Gen­eral As­sem­bly Pres­i­dent Volkan Bozkir, a Turk­ish diplo­mat, said in open­ing Tues­day’s ses­sion. “But our need for de­lib­er­a­tion is higher than ever.“

De­spite this year’s theme, speeches by lead­ers of some of the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tions have thus far been pep­pered with ini­tia­tives that sound more go-italone than col­lab­o­ra­tive, though all gave nods to work­ing to­gether.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin went so far as to of­fer U.N. per­son­nel a coro­n­avirus vac­cine his coun­try is de­vel­op­ing. Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping said a hand­ful of vac­cines were in phase 3 of clin­i­cal trials and that Bei­jing would give mil­lions to a U.N. fund to com­bat the virus.

“1.4 bil­lion Chi­nese, un­daunted by COVID-19, have made all ef­forts to con­trol the virus,” Xi said, un­der­scor­ing how China had dras­ti­cally slowed the spread af­ter the virus was dis­cov­ered in the Chi­nese city of Wuhan.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan, while laud­ing his own na­tion’s co­op­er­a­tion and call­ing for na­tions to work to­gether, took a swipe at how the U.N. cur­rently func­tions. Ear­lier this year, Er­doğan said, it took months for the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to even dis­cuss the pan­demic.

Saeed Khan, di­rec­tor of global stud­ies at Wayne State Univer­sity in Michi­gan, said the coro­n­avirus has “be­come a metaphor for glob­al­ism ver­sus na­tion­al­ism.”

“The great­est re­sis­tance is com­ing from regimes that are hy­per­na­tion­al­is­tic,” he said.

To be sure, the pan­demic has brought out sim­mer­ing di­vi­sions be­tween na­tions, pro­vid­ing new things over which to ar­gue.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump told the as­sem­bly that Amer­ica had “waged a fight against a great en­emy, the China virus,” and called on the U.N. to hold China ac­count­able for the virus and other things.

Trump, cam­paign­ing for re-elec­tion ahead of Novem­ber’s elec­tion, did not men­tion that on Tues­day the U.S. reached an un­wanted mile­stone — 200,000 coro­n­avirus deaths, by far the largest num­ber of any coun­try in the world — or that polls show a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans dis­ap­prove of his han­dling of the pan­demic.

Xi said any “politi­ciz­ing or stig­ma­tiz­ing should be avoided, that

“ma­jor coun­tries should act like ma­jor coun­tries” and no so­lu­tions could be found by bury­ing “one’s head in the sand like an os­trich,” not-so-sub­tle crit­i­cisms of Amer­ica’s re­sponse. Cuban Pres­i­dent Miguel Díaz-Canel Ber­múdez lamented how much COVID-19 had al­tered daily life, then ar­gued that U.S. poli­cies, unchecked cap­i­tal­ism and mil­i­tary spend­ing were the roots of many prob­lems world­wide.

Richard Ca­plan, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Ox­ford Univer­sity, said that although there were “as­saults” on multi­na­tion­al­ism around the pan­demic, par­tic­u­larly in the form of “vac­cine na­tion­al­ism,” there were also in­di­ca­tions that COVID-19 could lead to more co­op­er­a­tion, even among long­time foes.

Ca­plan noted that ear­lier this year, Is­rael and the Pales­tinian Author­ity co­or­di­nated ef­forts be­tween health min­istries.

Thou­sands of Pales­tinian work­ers were able to re­main in Is­rael for longer pe­ri­ods so as to slow the spread of the virus.

“Un­for­tu­nately this un­prece­dented prac­ti­cal co­op­er­a­tion broke down, in part be­cause of po­lit­i­cal ten­sions as­so­ci­ated with the Trump (Mid­dle East) peace plan and Is­rael’s moves to­wards an­nex­a­tion” of Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, Ca­plan said.

There is also the COVID-19 Vac­cines Global Ac­cess Fa­cil­ity, or COVAX, a group­ing of more than 150 coun­tries pool­ing re­sources around com­bat­ing the dis­ease and dis­tri­bu­tion of a fu­ture vac­cine. The U.S. is not par­tic­i­pat­ing in the ef­fort, led by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Trump says WHO is in­flu­enced heav­ily by China and that join­ing the ef­fort could con­strain U.S. ef­forts to de­velop a vac­cine.

Some lead­ers iden­ti­fied other virus-re­lated prob­lems that needed tack­ling.

South Korean Pres­i­dent Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in ex­pressed con­cern about pos­si­ble sec­ond and third waves of the coro­n­avirus. Like many oth­ers, he also noted the dam­age to economies world­wide.

“Like a tsunami that fol­lows an earth­quake, eco­nomic af­ter­shocks are sweep­ing us,” he said.

On the ques­tion of re­viv­ing the world econ­omy, few con­crete sug­ges­tions sur­faced. Most lead­ers seemed to ar­gue that a vac­cine was the only vi­able long-term so­lu­tion, though many did cite con­cern for lo­cal economies as a way to de­fend their han­dling of the pan­demic at home.

At a time when heads of state can’t meet in per­son, and sev­eral don’t ap­pear in­ter­ested in deep­en­ing ties, it is un­clear how much progress the U.N. may make dur­ing this year’s as­sem­bly, which con­tin­ues through Sept. 29. Just one thing is cer­tain: Dozens more lead­ers will be talk­ing about the pan­demic and their own ex­pe­ri­ences, and to­gether they will cre­ate a global lead­er­ship snap­shot of the hu­man strug­gle that’s un­fold­ing at this strange mo­ment in his­tory.

When it comes to a vac­cine, how­ever, it prob­a­bly doesn’t mat­ter in the long run how much progress is made to­ward mul­ti­la­te­ri­al­ism at the as­sem­bly, said Naim Salem, pro­fes­sional of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Notre Dame Univer­sity in Beirut, Le­banon.

“Mul­ti­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion is op­ti­mal,” Salem said. “But if a vac­cine proves to be ef­fec­tive in one coun­try, it will spread or taken up by other coun­tries.”

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