The Z Factor: Tear down this wall!

You might have thought that a pandemic which makes no distinction between one nationality and another would bring nations together. Alas, you’d have been wrong. Welcome to the Global Hunger Games: Move over global cooperation; the world now has global competition. Governments are raising walls, barriers and blockades in a desperate bid to save their own people.

It all began in Washington. President Donald Trump had pish-poshed the virus early on and claimed that it would simply leave over the summer, like a teacher dealing with a petulant schoolchild. But that policy went just as well as you would expect – and the president is now scrambling to cover up the lack of preparedness. Last week, the US was accused by Germany, France, Brazil and others of stealing their medical supplies en route from China. After that, Trump came out swinging against Narendra Modi, threatening retaliation if India didn’t send him its own supplies of hydroxychloroquine. His tirade did not go down well even with the otherwise fawning right-wing nationalists in India.

The shortage of medical supplies around the world is itself a product of Trump’s walls and barriers. Trump’s trade wars had disrupted supply chains around the world, which meant that ideas produced in American labs had lesser chance of being realised in Chinese factories. In its scramble to produce something (anything!), China has been shipping off faulty medical equipment abroad, much of which is now being returned by irate doctors in Europe, Australia and elsewhere.

On its part, China has turned the whole affair into an attack on its own ego. It has gone after journalists who pointed out how Beijing covered up early cases of the infection (China’s considered policy towards whistleblowers is to make them magically disappear). One American lawyer even filed a $20 trillion(!) lawsuit against the Chinese for these transgressions.

Meanwhile, back home in India, barriers and blockades have been making their way back up after a short break in divisiveness. The inevitable lockdown left behind some shocking revelations about class disparities: While middle-class professionals geared up to work from home, migrant workers in the big cities found themselves stranded with no work and no home. Regional divides have also been flaring up: For the past several days, Karnataka had a blockade in place along its border with Kerala, leading to the death of patients who were trying to cross into Karnataka for treatment. The matter was only resolved after extensive mediation from New Delhi.

In the age of walls and barriers, can religious divides stay far behind? Sure enough, the inexcusable religious congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat, which led to a spike in cases, brought back communal rhetoric, with some folks terming it ‘Corona Jihad’ – a grand and well-thought-out conspiracy by Muslims.

India also seems set to ramp up trade protectionism in the months ahead. At a Union cabinet meeting recently, ministers explored promoting ‘Make in India’ as “the country needs to lessen its dependence on other nations.” Promoting manufacturing at home is a great idea; locking down trade in order to do so is not. Trade is vital to keeping the engines of the economy humming, which in turn is vital to reducing poverty in developing countries.

The inevitable lesson from any pandemic is that nobody is safe unless their neighbours are also healthy. It isn’t sufficient for the rich to have access to great healthcare; the poor in their midst must have the same, lest an infection spread from among them. That means cooperation – across countries, provinces and communities. As another American president in another era said, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

(c) 2020, Deccan Herald