Navigating the Geopolitics of COVID-19 Around the Globe

News | May 11, 2020

On April 30, the EastWest Institute—in collaboration with the American Pakistan Foundation—convened a webinar discussion entitled "Navigating the Geopolitics of COVID-19 Around the Globe.”

Moderated by Shamila Chaudary, president of the American Pakistan Foundation, the panel invited expert perspectives to address the pandemic’s repercussions on the global economy and political stability around the world, particularly in crisis-prone regions like South Asia. Joining the panel were Dr. William J. Parker, president and CEO at the EastWest Institute; Dr. Vali Nasr, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and former senior advisor at the U.S. State Department; and Dr. Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which emerged as an unprecedented crisis to public health, has now become a major geostrategic and economic challenge for the world. The advent of the virus is proving to be a defining moment in modern history, disrupting normal life across the globe and consequently, straining globalization deeply at a time when international economies were becoming increasingly intertwined. Pandemics like this require strong national, regional and global leadership with the capability and flexibility for cooperative action against the “invisible enemy.”

To understand and navigate the ongoing challenges, Dr. Parker suggests that it is essential to fully comprehend the science behind the virus, its spread and the subsequent need for worldwide testing. Around the globe, there are over 3.68 million positive cases and around 258,000 fatalities. Per Dr. Parker, the virus is likely to end if one of three things occur: development of an effective vaccine; herd immunity takes over—70-90 percent of the population becomes immune after vaccination or after having survived the infection; or, in roughly 12-18 months, the curve fluctuates and eventually declines.

Dr. Parker emphasizes we all need to follow strict guidelines as societies across the globe gradually reopen, or the decline of COVID-19 could be perverse. He advises that governments conduct widespread testing to determine positive, negative and asymptomatic cases and make tests available to corporations, education systems and health care facilities. With the right strategic planning in place, backed by new federal law, businesses and corporations around the world could operate if they ensure that appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided for every customer and employee. Dr. Parker highlights that while each country looks to protect its people, the pandemic provides an opportunity to learn from each other and encourages greater information sharing across borders.

Reflecting on the COVID-19 situation in Pakistan, Dr. Nasr is baffled by what he considers to be a relatively sparse number of active cases and low national death toll—especially considering the government’s lack of vigilance and proactiveness. Nevertheless, while the pandemic might not be a severe public health crisis for Pakistan, he believes that it still poses the potential to be a political and economic catastrophe. On the other hand, as bilateral tensions between the U.S. and China escalate, it will be interesting to monitor the engagement of the two hegemons in South Asia, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Dr. Nasr also points out that the economic plight of the Middle East is also of deep concern to Pakistan, given the sharp decline in migrant labor remittances which contribute to Pakistan’s GDP considerably. Further, he adds that a prolonged economic crisis in fragile countries, like Pakistan and in several Arab countries, can also lead to political upheaval and urges effective policymaking and long-term vision to combat the ramifications effectively.

In South Asia, while the pandemic has caused health and economic distress, Dr. Ayres suggests that it has also reenergized hopes for greater regional integration vis-à-vis the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The SAARC member states are periodically coming together to discuss and execute joint action against the virus. Considering the India-Pakistan bilateral equation, however, Dr. Ayres points out that despite the United Nations Security Council’s call for global ceasefire in the face of the pandemic, the continued cross-border shelling between India and Pakistan is a matter of status quo.

On the India-China front, Dr. Ayres observes that India appears to be increasingly calling for the international community to hold China accountable for the coronavirus; how this view evolves will determine the relationship going forward. Nonetheless, Dr. Ayres applauds India’s actions during the initial days of the outbreak as a regional provider for evacuation of not only its own nationals abroad, but also of neighboring countries such as Maldives, Burma, Bangladesh, China and Peru, among others. In addition, India’s provision of hydroxychloroquine—a potential cure against COVID-19—to other countries is another example of international cooperation on the pandemic.

Domestically, Dr. Ayres says the federal system has revealed that some states are better prepared than others for disaster management and have produced better outcomes in terms of testing, providing relief and flattening the curve of new cases. Echoing Dr. Nasr’s remarks, Dr. Ayres shares the opinion that the pandemic has also emerged as a grave economic crisis for India, citing country-wide business closures, the tragedy of the migrant laborers and the inequitable distribution of relief and food rations among the various sectors of Indian society.

All three experts reflected whether hydroxychloroquine and BCG vaccines have the potency to provide greater immunity against COVID-19, given the slow growth rate of positive cases in South Asia, as opposed to the rest of the world. Dr. Parker believes that while this argument has validity, the real essence is in the testing capacity of each country to determine actual and factual rates of cases.

Undoubtedly, the novel coronavirus has served as a wakeup call; now more than ever. As the world moves towards a “new normal” and experiences a shift in the current geopolitical landscape, all experts emphasized the need for stronger and more effective governance, growth-oriented policies and joint action against the contagion.

Click here to view the full recording of the panel discussion.