16th March 2020
The Polar Connection
Professor of Disasters and Health, University College London, UK
While still a minority, many from Sydney to Toronto have loaded up with toilet paper, soap, and nappies, leaving those in need with nothing. London has witnessed people being physically assaulted without warning as their assailants scream that their casualty is Chinese and has brought the virus.
These incidences dispute hope of ‘disaster diplomacy’ which seeks examples of disaster-related activities creating new, lasting peace among those who might not have been friendly before. It is about joining together for dealing with disaster to ensure that we prevent or get through it, with amity continuing afterwards. Unfortunately, reams of case studies around the world at all diplomatic levels and covering pre-disaster, during disaster, and post-disaster actions have yet to prove a clear-cut case study of successful disaster diplomacy.
Nobody expects us to stand in a circle and sing peace songs while holding hands, especially during handshake bans and social distancing. Yet basic humanity of not being racist and not depriving others through panic buying is apparently too much to hope for from individuals.
At the national level, China—where the pandemic began in late 2019—might be one of the leaders in attempting coronavirus diplomacy. To great fanfare, a Chinese plane full of medical supplies landed in Rome followed by Chinese health experts, while Italy pointedly complained that no EU countries provided assistance. Germany had first banned facemask exports and then seemingly agreed to ship one million to Italy, although it is questionable whether these should be the priority. How much of these actions is political posturing and propaganda compared to attempts by each country to save face from initially inadequate responses?