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The coronavirus and the ego trap

Portrait of a man with blue eyes in a shirt and jacket, Majdan Square in the Ukrainian capital Kiev can be seen in the background
Frank Hofmann
March 23, 2020

Individual countries trying to go it alone in the fight against COVID-19 is totally counterproductive, as mounting evidence shows. The escape exit from the Corona crisis is the other way, writes Frank Hofmann.

EU Commission building with EU flags
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Spatari

When historians look back one day at the beginning of this crisis, they are likely to identify arrogance and egotism as two of the fundamental flaws of the Western world. This applies to every single individual who refuses to comply with social distancing or show solidarity with those in need of help — and it also applies to international politics, both in the US and especially in Europe, which has become the epicenter of the pandemic.

It is only a few days ago that politicians here shook their heads at US President Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart, Jair Bolsonaro, who initially responded by playing down the threat — and then sealed their countries off without warning.

Europe's politicians were quick to succumb to the allures of nationalism — by closing the national borders within the European Union, they merely made matters worse: First of all, crowds of people gathered at borders in the hopes of crossing before controls were imposed, offering the virus ideal conditions to spread. Since then, these border closures have led to doctors, nurses and other systemically vital staff no longer being able to show up for work on time.

It also did not take long for huge tailbacks of trucks to form at border crossings. The beating heart of Europe, the single market of the European Union, is suffering from arrhythmia – now, of all times, when the focus needs to be on tackling the virus. Frictionless supply chains from one EU member state to another are a prerequisite both for food supplies and accelerating the production of medical equipment and protective gear for frontline staff.

National solutions only throughout Europe

It's hard to believe, but the world's economically strongest market is not in a position to supply its doctors and clinics with what they most urgently need. Warsaw, Berlin, Vienna or Paris – throughout the EU, national politicians cling to the illusion that the virus might stop at their own domestic fiefdoms. How arrogant do you have to be to believe such a fiction?

The virus passes from human to human. This chain has to be broken by physically keeping people apart through self-isolation — now. But at the same time, leaders everywhere must pool their knowledge if the virus is to be overcome.

Of all people, Europe's politicians should know better. It should be one of the central lessons learned for a continent so ravaged by the 20th century, with two World Wars and the Cold War, that multilateral crises cannot be resolved unilaterally.

WHO at the center of the crisis

This is why the World Health Organization (WHO), a body of the United Nations, has been in the spotlight since the outbreak of COVID-19. Nationalists and populists throughout the world have long been pursuing a policy of discrediting the work of the United Nations, especially its refugee agencies. US President Donald Trump is one of them, along with right-wing populists in Europe. Now, at last, it's the WHO which is guiding the stream of findings necessary to develop strategies to combat the virus.

The Chinese leadership started by trying to cover up the scale of the infection crisis on the insane assumption that it could keep the virus under the lid of its own national surveillance state.

It was epidemiologists with contacts around the world who gradually put an end to this domestic isolation, sounding the alarm with their mathematical models. The global scientific community has intensified its collaboration and cooperation since the epidemic broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Now, medical research is in a mutual, global state of emergency and has been feverishly exchanging testing procedures, genome data and case studies. This is the alternative draft to the policy of national isolation and the politics of selfishness. 

International search for a vaccine

To be fair, it was international politicians — along with scientists and private donors — who laid the foundations for the path that can lead us out of this crisis: the development of a vaccine against the virus. At the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, the international foundation Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was established by the Norwegian and Indian governments and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.

Members include Germany's state-owned Paul-Ehrlich-Institut and the private-sector biotech company CureVac in the university town of Tübingen – the company that made world headlines in recent days on the back of a rumor that President Trump had tried to secure exclusive rights for the US to the results of its work on a vaccine.

In an interview with the German business daily Handelsblatt at Davos 2017, Bill Gates warned of the threat of a pandemic: "It will most probably be a pathogen that we have never seen before. Our biggest fear is an influenza virus that quickly mutates into other forms, spreads rapidly and can be deadly."

Gates was speaking in the context of the Ebola crisis, a far more lethal virus that does not transmit as easily, which was largely contained on the African continent. International efforts in virus research were stepped up.

Terrifying prophecy

A year earlier, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, had written an essay with terrifyingly accurate visions of today's Corona crisis: "If one human being is ill, we are all under threat," wrote the high-level German diplomat. Just like weapons, "an epidemic could also bring about mass destruction – but there would be no enemy to blame but ourselves for not being prepared."

He also warned that "the health systems in place in one country can have a great impact on global health as well as on international security and stability."

That's where we are now.

On March 6, CEPI launched a $2-billion program to intensify research into a vaccine.

"It is increasingly clear that containment measures for COVID-19 can only slow down its spread," the chief executive officer of CEPI, Richard Hatchett, wrote on the foundation's website. He said that the foundation had freed up $100 million of its own funds for member companies and institutes. He forecast that the money would last no longer than the end of March. Asked for details, CEPI said "to date, the Governments of Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, and the UK have committed over $185 million towards our COVID-19 vaccine development efforts."

According to the German government's status report on the Corona situation on March 18, Germany put up €140 million of that.

At least, Chancellor Angela Merkel released a televised broadcast pledging that intense efforts to find a vaccine were under way. But the German chancellor made no mention of Europe or multilateral international policies.

Time for politicians to come to their senses

Our political leaders have an obligation to reverse this relapse into unilateral answers to the Corona crisis, what Angela Merkel has dubbed the "greatest challenge since World War II." It is essential that national leaders come to their senses and realize that there is only one common way out of this disaster — and that it starts with existing structures.

In Europe, that means the European Union. The international science community cannot do it alone. It needs the support of international politics worthy of the name. There will be a different world at the end of this crisis — preferably with less arrogance and egotism. But for now that remains a hope.

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