The COVID-19 pandemic has entered its second phase. Most countries in Asia, Europe and North America that felt the first blast of the Novel Coronavirus have started the process of coming to live with it. But the work has only just begun on the next phase where we ask: How will this change the wider world?
Some of the effects of the virus are disheartening. Certain trends emerging around the world are becoming more hard-set, including a new nationalism, as worried governments try to shore up their own economies and reassure the people in their countries. This is not surprising. But it runs the real risk of losing the biggest prize – the chance for a world in which there is genuine new cooperation – not just in terms of specifics such as investment and science, but in something more fundamental–being able to look outward and understand other societies, so as to better challenge one’s own.
It’s clear that if we had all asked better questions at the start of the pandemic, we would have come to better conclusions about the virus early on. And with something as unprecedented as this crisis, it’s understandable that many governments got things wrong the first time around.
Yet this tendency should not be allowed to degenerate into a belief that we should have a competition to rate the responses of different countries against each other. Some countries, such as the Republic of Korea and New Zealand, have done very well overall. But even in the countries with the lowest death rates, there are lessons to learn.
In the United Kingdom, it’s remarkable that a midsize European country has been at the forefront of so much of the headline-grabbing science. The UK’s great public institutions such as Oxford University and Imperial College London are at the centre of solving the virus problem. In part, that is because many of the UK’s top science researchers are in fact from China.
The top science superpower in the world is still the United States by a long way and it’s a country that above all has been built on waves of immigration.
Overall, its history of welcoming waves of sharp, thoughtful and hardworking people from around the world has given it lasting power to innovate and change – and will do so long after any particular leader or party has left office.
Right now, too much of the conversation in three important countries – the US, China and the UK – has been its own comfort zone. Whether they are elites who make policy or netizens on social media, the crisis has led people toward the easiest but most misleading way of responding: declaring that what’s happened is the fault of someone else and foreigners in particular. This has to stop – and fast.
Finally, we must turn our attention back to the countries which seek to define the global conversation. Five of them are permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, Russia, the UK, France and the US.
Up to now, much of what those countries have done has been very inward-focused, although there have been some exceptions around the world in terms of science cooperation. There needs to be a new concentration on a global approach bringing together disease control, good governance and a new set of values that are about fulfilling the ultimate capability of the human individual.
The author is director of the University China Centre, professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford