Thursday, April 30, 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Sino-American Relations


The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to look at the world we live in and the global forces that are shaping it. Joerg Rieger, Distinguished Professor of Theology and Director of the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt University, points out that the U.S. is ill-prepared to face the pandemic because we have not learned the lessons from the Great Recession in 2008 by addressing growing inequity at the hands of financial capitalism. Indeed, when the market and stock indexes reached record highs in mid-February 2020, it was difficult to forecast the market’s sharp decline and volatility because of a tiny virus that has brought the world to heel.

The pandemic shines a spotlight on issues of race and class in American society. In the early days of the pandemic, celebrities and sports stars could get tested for the virus, while ordinary people with symptoms could not. Though professionals and white-collar workers can stay at and work from home, service workers and other low-income earners cannot. Staying at home is a luxury for them. While the coronavirus does not discriminate along racial and ethnic lines, black and brown people are affected disproportionally because of poverty, ill-health, and a general lack of medical support in their communities. Additionally, Anti-Asian racial incidents are on the rise, exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s labeling the coronavirus the “China virus.”

The COVID-19 pandemic spread at a time of tense Sino-American relations amidst trade wars and political and military realignments in the Asian Pacific. This tension has made global solidarity in combating the novel coronavirus more difficult and challenging. In 2003, when SARS reared its ugly head, scientists in Canada, Hong Kong, and the U.S. collaborated to hunt down the virus. But the blame game between China and the U.S. during COVID-19 has created obstacles in scientific collaborations and the procurement of necessary medical supplies and resources. The pandemic shows how much the world is interconnected, from the production of face masks to travel and migration.

The U.S. has shown itself to be slow and ill-equipped to face the COVID-19 pandemic whereas China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, having learned from the SARS and other previous epidemics, were spurred to action swiftly. Trump’s botched response and the government’s lack of preparation have been deadly. As the U.S. became the epicenter for the virus, the rush to get face masks, ventilators, and other basic medical supplies highlighted the lack of government coordination. Rapid responses to the pandemic have been hindered by a market-driven health care system, the lack of universal health care, and no provision of paid sick leave for many workers.

Many commentators have compared the Chinese communist system to the American democratic system to assess which nation is better equipped to handle the pandemic. But there is no time for finger-pointing or the blame game. Christine Loh, a former undersecretary of the environment in Hong Kong, argues that it is simplistic either to attribute China’s success in controlling the virus to authoritarianism or to blame America’s failings on democracy. She argues that the divergent ways that China and the U.S. have responded to the crisis have much more to do with resources and capacities at hand, cultural and societal values, scientific understanding, political ideologies, and their decision-making structures.

The Chinese government did not warn its citizens or the world of a likely pandemic at the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. Had early warnings been made, many lives would have been saved. Similarly, President Trump played down the severity of the impact of the virus until March and does not want to follow the strategies used by Asian countries to contain and mitigate the crisis. He is halting U.S. funds to the World Health Organization for 60 to 90 days, accusing the WHO of being both “China-centric” and slow in responding to the crisis.

The d├ętente between China and the U.S. has sabotaged global efforts to combat the coronavirus. Countries should not be forced to side with one of these superpowers in order to receive help and resources. When the pandemic is over, the world will need cooperation between the two largest economies in the world for concrete actions to bring about economic recovery. The lives and livelihoods of so many people are at stake.

We cannot forget the valuable lessons we are learning from facing this pandemic: namely, that we depend on each other for survival. Without solidarity with one another and with the least among us, we will fall short in responding to the looming crisis of climate change which will devastate human lives and our habitat on a scale that is hard to imagine. We must commit ourselves to building just and sustainable world systems for we can ill afford to go back to life as usual.

* First published as a blog on the Wendland-Cook Program of Religion and Justice Website at Vanderbilt University.