The Politics of Pandemics

Political Polarisation

Ever since 2018, the global politics have been shaped by two giants that tussled for supremacy. Some even made references to The Thucydides Trap in which war is inevitable when one great power threatens to unseat another. It turns out that the COVID-19 became the epicentre of an international crisis that reopened wounds.

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire: The virulent menace

The 18-month US-China Trade War has thrusted its two leaders into the limelight. In January 2020, the “Phase 1” trade deal was signed. Back then, many heaved a great sigh of relief as it possibly signalled the closure of a gaping economic and political rift. Little did the world expect another crisis to emerge right after, as if it was a perfectly timed bad joke.

After the news media went abuzz with reports that the COVID-19 originating from Wuhan, US President Donald Trump was quick to lash out at his Chinese counterpart. While the Trump administration struggled to cope with the rising number of cases domestically, the POTUS unleashed a tirade of abuse on Twitter, determined to frame China as the mastermind behind this catastrophe. His caustic remarks proved troublesome as Chinese authorities defended their position, arguing that they had reported the first cases earlier in the year to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Political Backlash: Sanctions and Condemnations

Although the COVID-19 was not a direct cause for many political clashes, opportunistic individuals have politicised the pandemic outbreak and tied it to other ongoing disputes.

In early May 2020, the Australian government requested for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. In response, China introduced tariffs of over 80% on Australian barley and banned four Australian meat processing plants. China justified its position by claiming that the banned beef exporters were “repeat offenders” that had compliance issues.

Along a similar vein, the Hong Kong protests that originated from a controversial extradition bill in 2019 escalated when China passed a National Security Law. Political observers commented that this law may further curtail political freedom in Hong Kong even though the former British colony is under the “One Country, Two Systems”. As such, President Trump announced the decision to end “preferential treatment” for Hong Kong, which has severe economic implications on the country.

Travel Bubbles: An economic lifeline

Although political bickering is expected when there are policy clashes, international cooperation is also observed from another perspective. As governments try to reopen their economies, border controls are eased, albeit with strict conditions of monitoring.

Countries like Singapore have contemplated on the introduction of “travel bubbles”. In short, border restrictions are maintained but exceptions are made for countries that have agreed to open to each other. Oxford University researcher Per Block pointed out that travel bubbles are introduced when partner countries are certain that authorities can effectively contain the virus.

In a public statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Singapore and China have agreed to establish a “fast lane” arrangement in June to allow essential travel for business and official reasons. Likewise, an Australia-New Zealand travel bubble (Trans-Tasman bubble) is slated to form by September. With proper calibration, these travel bubbles may become the lifesaver of economies in the post-COVID world.

Moving forward in a volatile world

In a nutshell, the pandemic has undoubtedly reminded us that we live in a “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” (VUCA) world. No individual, organisation or institution will emerge through all these perils unscathed. Ultimately, public and private organisations should band together and fight this unseen enemy through multi-levelled means of political cooperation.

By Justin Ng