The decline of the liberal international order offers an opportunity for the BRICS to step in and lead from the front.
By Rajan Kumar and Bruno De Conti
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the geopolitical rivalries and cultural fault-lines to the fore. International institutions are struggling to ensure cooperation and coordination among member nations that are riven by distrust. The Covid crisis has hurt the credibility and reputation of leading international organisations. For instance, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN agency leading the global fight against pandemic faces allegations of shielding China. It has become a victim of geopolitical contention between the United States (US) and China. The G-20 cancelled its virtual meeting due to bitter discord between Washington and Beijing over the role of the WHO. Washington demanded that independent experts be allowed to visit Hubei province. China dismissed this as a lame pretext to deflect its failures by the Trump administration.
The growing disagreement between Washington and Beijing has the potential to paralyse institutions such as the UNSC, the G-20, the WHO, and the WTO. International institutions, designed to serve the US-led liberal international order, have become rudderless. Emerging states are left with two choices: shore up their national capacities, and; keep the channels open with China through bilateral or multilateral forums. Countries are playing safe because Washington is no longer viewed as a reliable and trusted partner.
The hegemonic role that the US played with support from the G-7 and the EU appears to be an event of the past. This pandemic can prove to be the last straw for the country mired in ideological discord and economic downturn. The complacency and overconfidence of President Trump, combined with a fragmented health care system, turned the US into the epicentre of the pandemic. A country that used to inspire confidence is seen as a house in disarray.
The decline of the liberal international order offers an opportunity for the BRICS to step in and lead from the front. Its tasks are clear and well cut out: combat the pandemic and help others with the supply of medical gears, testing kits and medicines at reasonable rates; second, devise a roadmap for the economic revival of states in Asia, Africa and Latin America; and third, evolve a long-term policy on pandemic and climate change.
How have BRICS states fared so far?
In comparison with the West, BRICS states acted swiftly and have succeeded in delaying the spread of the virus. Barring Brazil, other BRICS nations imposed lockdown measures, scrambled up their health infrastructure, and launched measures to protect vulnerable people. India and Russia share borders with China, yet the spread of the virus has been remarkably lower compared to the Western nations thus far.
In contrast to other BRICS nations, Brazil continues to be enamoured by the “open-sky policy” of President Trump. There is a genuine concern that Brazil could be the next epicentre of coronavirus with an administration in denial, high social segregation and inadequate health infrastructure. Cases are mounting to an unmanageable level with 73, 235Covid positive and 6,003 deaths. In the absence of extensive testing, one cannot be certain of the exact number and actual cases are likely to be much higher.
President Bolsonaro repeatedly denied the severity of Covid-19 and ridiculed it as a “mild flu.” He is believed to have said, “some people will die, but what can we do?” The Minister of Health, who advocated social isolation, was humiliated and replaced by someone with little experience in public health. It goes to the credit of mayors and governors that some form of social distancing is operational in Brazil. Short of a strict lockdown, it is being violated and relaxed which can prove fatal in the coming weeks. The Minister of Finance’s first response to the coronavirus crisis was deeper and quicker neo-liberal reforms in Brazil. This goes against the global trend and recommendations of all multilateral institutions.
The number of confirmed cases has risen sharply in Russia. With more than 100,000 cases, it ranks the eighth in the world. Nevertheless, the cases of death have been very low (1007 or about one per cent), mainly due to better health infrastructure compared to other BRICS nations. Russia managed to slow the spread of the virus, but the peak is yet to come. The number of cases surpassed that of China. Russia was slow in initiating the lockdown towards the end of March as the number of cases was not clear in the initial stage. It has extended the lockdown until May 12. Russia sent medical supplies to the US and other countries as a goodwill gesture. But with the rising cases of hospitalisation, it is running short of protective gears for its healthcare personnel.
Another source of worry for Russia is the falling prices of oil in the international market. Oil and gas being the main source of revenue, the fallout is likely to be devastating with low demands in Europe and China. Western sanctions continue to cripple the Russian economy. Russia does have $550 billion international reserves, but if the oil price continues to plummet, this reserve will dwindle fast.
India was quicker in announcing the lockdown measure- probably the first major country to take such a drastic decision. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared 21 days lockdown on March 24. It was further extended for three weeks until May 3. There are nearly 31,000 cases which is definitely low given its size and density of the population.
While there was a widespread consensus in support of a national lockdown, the sudden announcement without accompanying support measures, panicked the migrant workers in urban areas. Thousands of them, uncertain of their livelihood, marched afoot for their homelands hundreds of kilometres away. A mass exodus from cities fuelled the fear of the spread of the virus to the rural areas. There are reports of unrest in some cities where poor people cannot access ration and fear starvation. The government is working on an exit strategy which is likely to be a gradual and staggered re-opening of districts deemed free from the virus. There is a fear that the second wave of the virus may appear with the opening up of the economy. But the government is definitely better prepared compared to what it was in the initial days with just one testing centre in Pune.
China was the first country to face the epidemic with Wuhan province as its epicentre. It delayed the official announcement and informed the WHO about this outbreak on December 31, 2019. As the infection kept mounting, China announced a lockdown in Wuhan and other cities by mid-January. After nearly ten weeks, China reopened the province with some restrictions on travel and gatherings. With strict lockdown, China managed to contain the spread of the virus in other regions. It quickly restored normalcy in different areas and began supplying medical gears, testing kits, ventilators and medicines to other countries. It sent medical teams to 16 countries and 125 nations received masks, medical gears and testing kits. It donated $50 million to the WHO, at a time when the US decided to freeze its funding. China seems to have performed well in countering the pandemic.
This narrative, however, is countered by several allegations against China. It is widely accepted in the West that China delayed information and tried to influence the WHO. Second, China is accused of taking advantage of the situation by supplying low-quality medicines and testing kits to many countries. Just a few days earlier, a controversy erupted over Indian Council of Medical Research’s rejection of imported rapid test kits from China as faulty and unreliable. Third, the Chinese companies are investing in offshore enterprises which have fuelled the fear of hostile takeover in future. India recently changed its FDI rules to regulate such investment. In its worst form, China is accused of manufacturing the virus for economic and political gains. These allegations circulate widely in the informal social and vernacular media. In Brazil, even the Minister of Foreign Affairs declared that Coronavirus is a strategy of China to spread communism in the world.
As a consequence, one witnesses a rise in xenophobic sentiment against China. The BRICS states must guard against rising Sinophobia (China phobia) and counter fake news with facts and analysis. There is no evidence that China created this virus or engaged in its wilful spread. Targeting any country without evidence sets up a dangerous precedent.
Learning from other countries’ experience, President Ramaphosa introduced an early and strict lockdown in South Africa on March 25. With a vast experience of fighting against HIV, it was quick to take a harsh decision on lockdown. It has reported about 5000 cases with less than a hundred deaths. South Africa is a heterogeneous society with a very high level of social inequality and racial segregation. The government has taken some measures to provide economic relief packages to vulnerable families and tax deferrals for municipalities, companies and workers. The BRICS Bank has pledged $1 billion loan to South Africa in its fight against the pandemic. As far as the spread of the virus is concerned, it has performed reasonably well compared to its counterparts in the West.
The Role of the BRICS
In a virtual meeting on April 28, the BRICS decided to set up a vaccine research and development centre. The New Development Bank will allocate $15 billion to revive their economies. These are welcome signs, but inadequate to fight a global pandemic. The BRICS must realise that the way to recovery is likely to be long and arduous.
As an organisation, it can play a leading role in the process of revival. The members must sort out their differences and restore inter-personal trust which is lacking at the moment. Free flow of information is key to regaining the trust. The members must resist the temptation of restrictive trade practices to ensure a speedy revival of their economies. The New Development Bank and the Contingency Reserve Arrangements may be important tools for coping up with the crisis if adequately used. China, as a leading nation in this bloc, should be more generous and less aggressive in its economic and security policies. That will help rebuild its reputation and restore the confidence of other members.
(Rajan Kumar teaches in School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. And, Bruno De Conti teaches at Institute of Economics, University of Campinas, Brazil. Views expressed are personal.)