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26 March 2020

Coronavirus, the kingmaker

By: Ghassan Khatib
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RAMALLAH, March 26, 2020 - This pandemic that the world is facing is having a powerful impact on politicians and political situations—but with entirely contrasting results. For some, it is a gift from God for their fortunes, but for others, an existential threat. Leadership capability and the nature of the political regime seem to be the most important overarching factors.

Here in Palestine, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has so far been able to leverage this health crisis into a political opportunity. Admitting our lack of resources to adequately confront the spread of the disease, he set out early to isolate communities and delegate health workers in order to delay and reduce the number of COVID-19 cases to a scale that the health system can handle. He also adopted an effective and transparent communications strategy that was able to remedy the sorry lack of confidence the public had in previous governments. With 62 cases on Wednesday among the West Bank’s nearly three million people and no community spread, the public has mostly stood behind the difficult economic impact. (Ed.'s note: Gaza has nine confirmed cases, but a much more worrisome prognosis, as it only has 20 ventilators and its health system is already near collapse due to Israel's blockade.)

Proud of this impressive performance, which has been praised by the World Health Organization, Palestinians like to make the point that this is yet another sign that they are ready to govern themselves independently. Palestinians do not waste any opportunity to prove once again that they “deserve” freedom and independence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, seems to be cynically manipulating the crisis. The shut-down of legal proceedings is postponing his corruption trial, and the state of emergency is giving him greater powers and enabling him to further compromise the delicate remainders of democracy in Israel. In the meantime—and probably as result of this self-interested focus on his political career—he has been less successful in facing down the pandemic itself. As of Wednesday, there were more than 2,000 cases and five deaths among the population of 8.5 million. The deepening of the health crisis will most probably backfire on Netanyahu’s political fortunes.

Notably, this epidemic and the way it has been addressed by Palestinian and Israeli authorities, have shown how impossible it has become for each nation to act in isolation. While both Israel and Palestine closed their borders with the outside world, they kept them open between their respective territories. Israel’s army and settlers have continued their activities in the heart of the West Bank. And neither Israel nor Palestinians were able to stop the flow of Palestinian laborers into the heart of Israel, despite a recent declaration from Prime Minister Shtayyeh that they must stop traveling back and forth daily. Some cynical Israeli and Palestinian observers are using this as a sign that the two-state solution is just impossible today.

On the world stage, the epidemic has produced two stark examples of governance, China and the US. China’s leadership approach, and probably the nature of the regime, has faced down the COVID-19 challenge in a manner that has reaped major economic and strategic opportunities. As other countries struggle to contain and battle the virus, China is free to offer support and expand its reach in line with its strategic objectives. In contrast, in the United States, the leadership’s arbitrary, unserious, and unscientific approach is putting the credibility and popularity of the administration at great risk, to put it mildly.

This crisis will provide China with a leap ahead in its economic race with the United States, which might speed up the transfer of the world order into one that is more balanced. The fact that China’s populace is now mostly cured and that the country is gradually returning to normal economic activity while its competitors continue to flounder might lift China to a position and role similar to that of the United States after the second World War.

Meanwhile, political regimes such as the United States, where the private sector has marginalized the government’s social protection role in order to advance neo-liberal politics and policies—including marginalizing or dismissing public health—are facing greater challenges.

Having analyzed the rise and fall of respective political fortunes, it is a good time to state: this pandemic is a global threat that poses a challenge to humankind. It does not recognize nationalities, ethnicities, or borders and we will be successful in defeating it only with a global approach.

Many political leaders have approached this challenge armed with nationalism, while keeping an eye on their political careers and the next election. They are also limiting international organizations, such as United Nations and the World Health Organization, to an auxiliary role rather than supporting them in taking the lead with their expertise and cross-border vision. Global leaders and global approaches are sorely missed in the fight against this threat.

In no case is this as clear as when we look at the United States, whose leaders and their allies have preached to us about economic globalization, which has vastly expanded their economic domination and wealth. But now, when the world needs an international vision to combat a threat that faces us all, we find them mired in their chauvinistic or nationalist selfishness.

* The founded and directed the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, which specializes in research, opinion polling and media activities. He is also a lecturer at Bir Zeit University. - gkhatib@birzeit.edu

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