July began with tentative hopes that the world was finally turning the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic. After peaking in late April, new cases around the world fell steadily until the end of June. They ticked up a bit in early July and began to rise quickly as the delta variant spread rapidly around the world. The speed of delta’s spread has caught public health authorities around the world off guard and changed calculations about how to bring the pandemic under control.
In South Korea, new cases grew from 762 at the beginning of the month to 1,896 on July 28. Mask mandates and social distancing measures in Seoul and surrounding areas have been strengthened to Level 4, the highest level. After an explosion of cases in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in hard-hit areas. Other nations have begun limiting access to public places only to vaccinated people and travel restrictions are being imposed again.
The new measures have stirred predictable complaints and protests, but the sudden change in fortune supports the need for increased caution, and the public is largely cooperating. The greater problem, however, is the lack of a strategy to beat the pandemic on a global scale. From the first outbreak in China in January last year to the present, the responses have centered on the nation state. This is only natural given that sovereignty resides in the nation state in the current world system. COVID-19 and climate change, however, are revealing the limitations of this system.
Developing a new world system starts with the recognition that nation states share the world with other nation states and, therefore, cannot live in isolation. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there is no “over there” anymore and there are no more exceptions. The nation state defines itself as a strong independent entity that owes nothing to other nation states. The reality of the world in the 21st century no longer supports this idea. The world is too interconnected and too fragile for nation states to act without consideration for the “global common good.”
Ending the COVID-19 pandemic is in the global common good. Over the course of the next several years, wealthy nations with access to vaccines stand a chance of keeping the pandemic at bay and perhaps even becoming “free” of the virus. Such a victory will be short-lived as long as the virus has humans to spread to. New variants that resist vaccines will soon emerge and will overwhelm the world again. This will prompt another round of vaccine development and mass vaccinations again centered on wealthy nations, leaving large parts of the world vulnerable again.
What can be done now to move the world toward cooperating on global vaccination? The obvious answer is that wealthy countries need to help poor countries buy and administer vaccines. Though these nations are still busy containing the pandemic at home, domestic politics is making it difficult for leaders to make substantive proposals.
Politics in the US shows the depth of this problem. The Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Western Europe after World War II and the President‘s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief directed at the HIV and AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa are examples of US leadership in world affairs.
President Biden may wish to propose a similar program for COVID-19, but may fear the political repercussions of “giving money” to other countries. With extensive experience in Washington, Biden knows what the mainstream media often overlooks: Support for Democrats is not as strong as it appears. After the 2020 elections, the Senate is split evenly and Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives, leaving them with a paper-thin majority. Biden no doubt fears Democratic loses in the 2022 midterm elections.
Throughout the Cold War, US foreign policy was largely bipartisan, but consensus began to break in the 2000s. Republicans are now the party of hard-edged nationalism mixed with isolationism. Many Republicans think fears of COVID-19 are overblown; some even think it is a hoax. These attitudes stoke resistance to vaccination and other public health measures.
With a sharply divided US failing to provide leadership, other nations must step forward. The European Union is the most likely candidate, but many of the 27 member countries have their own problems with nationalism and isolationism. Instead of fearing the anachronistic forces inside, leaders of wealthy nations around the world should gather their courage and band together to fight the pandemic head on, for the global common good.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.