Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, reports on the global nature of the coronavirus pandemic, and the international response needed to tackle it
Now we know. Now we all know what it’s like to live in a war zone. At the least, we know what it’s like to live in this one.
Our new lexicon speaks of this war. Our brave nurses, doctors, all caregivers are all on the ‘frontline’ in the fight against Covid-19. PPE, the personal protective clothing now urgently needed in hospitals, takes the same name as body armour long worn by soldiers, journalists, aid workers and others in dangerous places. When loved ones go out the door, only to shop or to run, we urge them – ‘be safe’.
Now there is a terrifying enemy who lurks, in our very midst. Even worse, it’s invisible. We worry that it has left its deadly mark on supermarket shelves we touch, door handles we grab, railings we brush past. Is it hiding in the groceries which come to our door?
And, in a jarring turn, so many in so many places now speak this same language. I read Twitter posts from Afghan officials in Kabul on the need to ‘flatten the curve’. A friend in the Middle East, forever in fear of a military conflagration, now sends a message to me in London asking ‘scary isn’t it?’
We heard, long ago, how a butterfly flapping its wings deep in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil could spark a storm in Texas. Now, in our time, a bat flicks its wings in a wet market in Wuhan and it touches us all – from relatively wealthy industrialised nations to countries long mired in wars without end, and deadly disasters which run deep.
‘We are in the same boat, all facing a tremendous storm,’ warns Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. ‘It has to be all hands on deck because if one corner of the boat sinks, we are all affected.’
But this is also a time, beyond compare, of every man and woman for him or herself. Even governments across Europe are scrambling to urgently purchase or produce, in the tens of thousands, more ventilators to keep people breathing.
Erecting makeshift field hospitals at speed has long been the stock in trade of emergency workers in distant disasters. Now shiny new field hospitals are rising from parking lots and sports centres across Western cities and far beyond.
‘We will do our best with what we have,’ vows a stoic Health Ministry spokesman in Kabul who announced this week they had 10,400 beds across Afghanistan for all patients but expected that 700,000 people may need to be hospitalised, including 200,000 needing intensive care. ‘We wouldn’t get enough beds even in 10 years,’ he admits, calling it a worst case scenario. Many Afghans fear far worse than that.
A common enemy which stops at no borders finds its weakest opponents on bloody battlefields, in squalid refugee camps, in crowded slums where there’s no distance to keep, where not enough clean water flows from taps, where hospitals have been bombed into oblivion.
Seventy million people said to be displaced by conflicts and hardship will soon confront another evil with the scantest of protection, not even the luxury of sanitisers or soap.
There’s a growing chorus of alarm fighting to be heard as this vicious virus wreaks havoc everywhere from New York to New Zealand.
‘There is a double crisis,’ says David Miliband, Britain’s former foreign secretary who is now president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. ‘It is a crisis of national health systems in advanced industrialised countries and a crisis of international cooperation.’
‘The chance to take preventative measures for the world’s most vulnerable is largely being missed,’ he tells me in a message from his own shelter-in-place in the United States. ‘But it is still do-able.’
The world’s leading aid agencies are warning: ignore the weakest at your peril.
‘It will come back to haunt us,’ explains Egeland in a telephone conversation from his home in Oslo. ‘Our conscience will be stained but our own self-interest will also be undermined.’
In a war with an anxious refrain – ‘when will this end?’ – we’re being forewarned that this crisis will rear its ugly head again, in a second, or even third wave, if left to fester in the world’s most vulnerable nations.
Countries like Yemen, already battling the oldest of infectious diseases like cholera, diphtheria, and dengue, now braces itself for the onslaught of this new contagion with half of its hospitals and clinics lying in ruin. Countries like the impoverished Central African Republic, a nation of five million people, is said to have only three ventilators.
The last time when much of the world spoke the same language was precipitated by the September 11 attacks in 2001. Western leaders spoke of standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Afghans ‘for the long run’. Governments change tack, patience runs thin, other crises erupt. Afghanistan and Iraq remind everyone large scale humanitarian interventions (these after military invasions) are hard to get right, that costly mistakes are repeatedly made, on all sides. Lessons have, hopefully, been learned.
And Syria’s merciless war reminded the world that borders can’t contain catastrophes: millions of desperate Syrians seized any chance of a safer, saner life elsewhere; extremist groups found ways to terrorise wherever they live, including everyone’s cities.
Afghanistan is still a place where the enemy is visible and audible: war planes still screech across the skies; Taliban and now Islamic State suicide attackers still strike without warning. Afghan friends have often told me, without a trace of pathos, that when they leave home in the morning they’re not sure they’ll be back at the end of the day.
‘The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,’ declared UN secretary general Antonio Guterres last week as he implored warring parties around the world to lay down their arms in support of a bigger battle against the common enemy of Covid-19.
Good can come out of bad. Warring sides in Yemen issued encouraging statements which were, however, soon eclipsed by audacious missile attacks and blistering aerial bombardments. In Colombia, the left wing National Liberation Army, the ELM, declared a unilateral ceasefire as an ‘humanitarian gesture’. In Afghanistan, the Taliban carried out some 300 strikes last week, while vowing to work with aid workers to fight this God-given virus rather than attack them as in the past.
The world’s top table, the UN Security Council, hasn’t met yet to forge a collective response to this corona crisis, even to sound the same big bell of alarm. Even if they did, via a state-of the-art app, great powers may get bogged down in age-old accusations of who’s to blame for this calamity.
‘In my view, while the ‘world is on pause,’ there has never been a better time to consult, coordinate and cooperate,’ Canada’s minister of foreign affairs François-Philippe Champagne texts me while, like many other foreign ministers, he focuses on ‘managing the biggest repatriation of citizens in peace time in Canada’s history’.
‘We must also keep an eye on the strategic imperative of the post-Covid-19 world and the functioning of Western institutions which for 75 years ensured peace, stability, and prosperity to the world,’ he insists. In a world where there are many who say ‘my country first,’ not all would agree.
If they don’t, we may all be last.
Last week, a two billion US dollar UN appeal to stop Covid-19 from ‘circling back around the globe’ was also launched. At the time of writing, it had received about 364 million dollars in donations from Japan, Kuwait, Germany, the European Commission and the UN’s own Central Emergency Response Fund.
This war of our time has been shot through with many fears. First, there was fear of fear itself: don’t exaggerate; don’t make the panic worse than the pandemic. Now there’s worry this cure of a crushing lockdown throwing people out of work may be worse than this most deadly of diseases. We fear too the aching heartbreak of triage in a desperate survival of the fittest. And now there’s this warning that, even if we ‘flatten the curve’, a failure to flatten the vast gap between countries’ medical might may shatter any impending relief and joy.
When cafes and companies open, when people whose money has long run out finally get back to work, when we finally savour that delicious moment of going out again with dear family and friends – we may be sent back into our homes when the curse of corona strikes again.
On Thought for the Day, on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, writer and theologian Martin Wroe noted that one of the most recurring phrases in our new lexicon is ‘when this is all over’.
But he cautioned that after this ‘global near-death experience’ we should not want to go back to normal when this is all over ‘because normal was already not working for most people most of the time’. Not working for many in our own society; not working for many far beyond.
In many conflicts of our time, ‘when will it all end?’ has been a lament with no reply, year in year out. Now we’re all staring into the same abyss, unable to answer this question.
Lyse Doucet is the BBC’s chief international correspondent and a presenter for BBC World News and World Service