Coronavirus response reveals deep fractures in global partnerships

The fractured global response to the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the shortcomings of international collaboration as world leaders point fingers and struggle to formulate a unified response to a once-in-a-generation health crisis.

China has drawn intense criticism for masking the extent of the crisis for some time and for refusing the help of U.S. researchers.

The Trump administration has convened conference calls with world leaders, but only after it roiled European allies with hastily announced travel restrictions.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has emerged as the leading voice on the pandemic globally while other affiliated global institutions like the United Nations Security Council are relegated to the background.

Experts say the lack of cohesion is partially the result of years of fraying alliances during the Trump administration and the rise of populist and nationalist leaders across the globe. They suggested that the handling of the virus in the weeks and months to come could determine the fate of global institutions like the European Union, United Nations and the WHO.

“This crisis occurs on a lot of collateral damage over the last three and a half years,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “You have to have trust and credibility that collaboration and solidarity... is not just rhetoric but will physically be there.”

The slow and at times fragmented global response to the virus largely stemmed from China's initial secrecy about it. The Chinese government waited for weeks after the first cases of a new coronavirus were found in Wuhan to disclose information to the public and report it to global authorities.

The response to the virus was further hampered when U.S. officials said Beijing was refusing to accept the help of experts from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When you think about it, what coronavirus shows is while China is an economic juggernaut it still has huge internal governance issues,” a former State Department official who worked in multiple administrations said. “Because of this, it can’t be a reliable global partner.”

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As the Trump administration grappled with its own slow testing rollout and other issues, it sought to deflect blame onto China with at times controversial tactics. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoBritain and Europe need to step up their support for Hong Kong Take China seriously, not literally Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death MORE and GOP lawmakers have repeatedly described the coronavirus as the “Wuhan Virus” or the “Chinese Virus.” National security adviser Robert O'Brien and other officials have gone as far as to accuse China of engaging in a cover-up over the extent of the virus.

A top Chinese official responded by spreading a conspiracy theory that the U.S. Army may have been responsible for the virus, drawing ire from American lawmakers and officials and further ratcheting up tensions between the two powers.

“This was an opportunity for us to step forward and say we are the reliable global partner and we’re going to help you fix this, we’re going to help you get past this,” the former State Department official said.

Trump has taken initiative in some ways. He convened video conference calls with members of the Group of Seven (G-7) and Group of 20 (G-20), which consist of the world's largest economies. And he has spoken individually with the leaders of Israel, China, Germany and France in recent days to discuss the latest developments with the virus.

But Trump has built the first three years of his presidency around his “America First” agenda, shoring up borders, cutting international aid and calling into question the role of global institutions like the United Nations and NATO.

European officials said they were not given a heads up  about Trump’s announcement barring non-Americans from flying into the U.S. 

Trump later told reporters there simply wasn't enough time to notify other nations, but the incident underscored how each country has taken matters into its own hands in responding to the virus.

The virus has spread to different countries at different rates, prompting leaders to use measures suited to individual situations.

Italy, which has been ravaged by the virus, instituted piecemeal measures to try and limit its spread before ultimately imposing a nationwide lockdown.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially took a laid-back approach, shaking hands with coronavirus patients at a hospital earlier this month and downplaying the need for drastic measures. The United Kingdom, which is leaving the European Union, has since shuttered nonessential businesses and Johnson on Friday revealed he tested positive for the virus.

Spain, where cases are rapidly rising, has reached out to NATO for help securing testing kits, ventilators and protective gear for medical workers.

India this week ordered a nationwide lockdown just as Trump was proposing the economy could reopen in the U.S. by Easter Sunday.

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Experts said a contributing factor to the disjointed responses is that many of the countries that would typically take a leading role have leaders with nationalist or populist tendencies, which has stoked the decision for many nations to turn inward.

Steve Morrison, who worked in the State Department and at USAID during the Clinton administration, said the U.S., Italy and the United Kingdom in particular “encountered this with a particular level of skepticism throughout the first phase of the response and were somewhat dismissive or dismissive of the notion that there needed to be high-level coordinated action.”

Trump, Johnson and other world leaders have said they are confident the world will emerge stronger after the pandemic has faded. But Conley said the United Nations, the European Union and other global bodies that took a backseat during the initial response will likely come under scrutiny from countries already skeptical of their usefulness.

“After we get through the acute phase of this crisis, there is going to be an enormous amount of testing and soul searching about collaboration whether that’s within the European Union or globally,” Conley said.

This report has been updated March 28, 7:45 p.m.