In times of acute crisis such as the present one, it gives some solace to re-read the seminal book by the veteran British diplomat Robert Cooper The Breaking of Nations: “When you have a problem you cannot solve, enlarge the context.” Time and again in the past, Europe succeeded in reverting inward-looking navel-gazing and impasses by bringing in new resources and new thinking from the outside. As this initial brutal phase of the COVID-19 pandemics continues, Europe may find much-needed purpose and unity in walking the pre-crisis walk and look beyond its Southern borders, towards Africa.
As nations worldwide mobilise and direct their resources to fight COVID-19 within their own jurisdictions, Africa inevitably will take a low priority; but once testing is scaled up, infection rates are expected to surge and deaths may increase commensurately. For Europe to enlarge the context, it is essential that it keeps in clear sight Africa’s needs and the dire consequences of inaction.
In these long, uncertain days since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tables have turned on the European mindset and institutions. Europe spent a decade debating how centrists could handle the populist rage against immigration and globalization. COVID-19 sorted this dilemma out in a matter of days. For the first time since World War 2, closing borders and erecting barriers is not a choice. In a domino-effect of unilateral national decisions, country after country followed its neighbour in declaring lockdowns, curfews, closing borders and banning travels. Anyone proposing something different – read: herd immunity – is singled out as unconscionable or mad. In so doing, the pandemic has turned its head on the key European intuition that security and stability could be best attained by means of exchanges and integration. For now, at least, survival equals total lockdown and closure, end of story.
An unstoppable trend towards de-globalization seems now perfectly attuned to the almost identical sequencing of border closures, travel bans, lockdowns and curfews enacted by country after country. More severe, some countries have declared state of emergency and nationalized even private health service companies.
EU in the global game of geopolitics
Before this crisis broke out, the European Union had bet on reinventing itself as a player that could finally compete in the global game of geopolitics with few but aggressive power centres. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Ethiopia as the first destination outside Europe to herald this shift and designated Africa the primary partner of its new world outlook. The leaders of the Commission went there again in March, just before the Coronavirus broke out in Europe. We wrote in these pages only a couple of months ago: “Only by recognizing and sharing the values derived from its unique transnational experience can Europe meet the promise of its holistic partnership with Africa.”
For all the truths that the virus has shattered and all the uncertainty that it has created, the crisis does seem to provide validation for the changes that the world order experienced before COVID-19 erupted. The United States is retrenching in a stubborn and erratic response, made up of changing strategies and empty threats against the “Wuhan virus”. China has for now emerged victorious from its battle against the virus, and citizens the world over now place their hopes on emulating aspects of the successful authoritarian lockdown by Beijing and on its timely ability to dole out state-led support, sanitary equipment, and medical advisers to countries in need. In the past few weeks, China has received not only massive orders for its masks and other health equipment, but also requests to share its expertise on containing the pandemic.
Fragile transnational governance
Covid-19 has proven the fragility of transnational mechanism. While the pandemic is borderless, the absence of robust transnational mechanisms ready to coordinate the responses to the pandemic, for example in relation to travel banning, may have increased the costs of the contagion. With nations, in essence, left to fend for themselves, the cross-border supply of critical professionals, materials, and goods including medical ones are now restricted. Moreover, the impact of such restrictions on the livelihoods of many, including populations in border areas have been affected significantly. More than that, bans on cross border mobility and the closure of borders has already bred more distrust undermining the foundations for integrative transnational arrangements. The economic and financial toll of the pandemic will be dramatic, and it is anyone’s guess whether and when Europe will go back to a pre-crisis mode of operating.
More essentially, as the dust on the first brutal phase of the pandemic settles in Europe, and set against Europe’s experience, containment of the pandemic cannot succeed through unilateral responses. EU policy makers will soon be confronted with the fact that the distance between Africa and Europe is only as far as the 14 kms that separate Gibraltar from Morocco. Virus knows no borders. The pandemics in Africa will threaten another round of outbreak in Europe and elsewhere. A failure in African response to the pandemics will be a failure to the world and vice versa.Print