Coronavirus closes the curtain on the globe

A worker from a Servpro disaster recovery team wearing a protective suit and respirator peers out a window as he waits to exit the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash. for a break from cleaning the facility, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

One of the harshest psychological blows of the coronavirus pandemic came Wednesday when President Donald Trump banned travel from continental Europe to the United States.

Trump’s unprecedented action immediately provoked a furious response from the European Union. The dispute brought to mind a line from what many historians consider to be Winston Churchill’s greatest speech. Speaking after Stalin imposed Soviet rule on tens of millions of eastern Europeans at the end of the Second World War, the iconic British statesman famously said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

The new Iron Curtain that Trump had drawn between the Old World and the New World stunned the EU for two reasons. It severed air links that more than 70 million travellers use every year. Worse than that from the European point of view, Trump took this action unilaterally without so much as a telephone call of warning, let alone one sentence of consultation, with any of his country’s closest allies.

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While another telling example of how Trump conducts business with friends and foes, and the rupture this has caused between Washington and almost every foreign capital, the travel ban was a sterling illustration of the international and domestic frictions that COVID-19 has created or exacerbated. It was ironic to hear the hyper-partisan Trump calling for bipartisan action in the U.S. Congress and Senate to respond to the disease.

Not that Trump’s appeal for unity meant anything. A few hours later, a Republican senator and Trump ally stopped quick passage of an emergency bill for paid sick leave for workers who become infected with the virus.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus around the world: March 12, 2020'
Coronavirus around the world: March 12, 2020

There has never been a story in most of our lives with so many grave international dimensions arising simultaneously. So much is going on overseas at the moment that trying to keep track has become impossible beyond the broad contours and a torrent of telling snippets.

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The most obvious and emphatic development is the likelihood of a world recession. The possibility was sharply increased by a sudden, unexpected oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia that helped trigger an astonishing 25 per cent drop in stock market values this week.

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Divining the Saudis’ motivation for inflicting this jolt at such a fragile time has been difficult. Vladimir Putin’s goal is obvious. He has decided to cynically use the medical crisis and the drop in demand for oil that has come with it to try to kill the costlier fracking business in South Dakota and Texas that had allowed the U.S. to surge past Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s biggest oil producer. Countries such as Canada, which are heavily dependent on energy resources to pay their bills, are chump change collateral damage.

China, being Red China, has been promoting the ludicrous idea that it has been the exemplary leadership of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party that has saved the country from the coronavirus and become a beacon of hope and inspiration to the world. However, multiple news reports from China suggest that many people there have not been convinced by this instant rewriting of history.

It is generally known that for more than a month, Xi and the Communist Party suppressed information about the pernicious new virus and punished medical officials who tried to warn the public. This unconscionable delay undoubtedly gave the virus time to take root, fester and explode far outside the city of Wuhan, where it is thought to have originated.

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Meanwhile, two European pillars of probity and propriety, Germany and Switzerland, have fallen out over Germany’s seizure of a truckload of face masks that were being shipped to Switzerland, which has an infection rate that is at least 25 times greater than Canada’s. That won’t happen in France. The Macron government has taken control of all such medical supplies. Or in Italy, where the infection rate is 50 times that of Canada and 827 people have already died from it.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: What’s it like living in a city under lockdown?'
Coronavirus outbreak: What’s it like living in a city under lockdown?

There has also been a row between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and neighbouring countries over her sombre public declaration that as many as 70 per cent of her compatriots could become infected.

Justin Trudeau got a raw lesson this week in how leaders can be damned if they act and damned if they don’t. The Canadian government had tried to keep a fairly low profile, apparently so as not to spook or panic the public.

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But the $1 billion in new spending that Trudeau finally announced on Wednesday to counter the contagion and its economic fallout has been widely criticized for being not nearly enough to deal with a full-blown medical and economic crisis. Compared to the many tens of billions of dollars of emergency spending announced by the U.S. and the United Kingdom, what Canada has allocated looks feeble, even piddling.

The new reality that we are now living has been further brought home to me by stark reports from friends and acquaintances from around the world.

A Canadian couple in Rome have no easy way to return home because of the national lockdown there, the subsequent cancellation of direct flights from Italy to Canada, and the uncertainties about how to acquire the required paperwork to travel anywhere. An Irish man and his wife wonder how to care for their kids because schools there have all been closed.

A Japanese pensioner, who already has a seriously compromised immune system, told me that she had purchased several months’ worth of emergency food and household supplies, locked the door to her one-room apartment, and hunkered down for who knows who long. Several Filipinos wrote approvingly of President Rodrigo Duterte sealing off Manila from the rest of the country amid what they described as panic buying of rice, pasta and cleaning products.

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There were similarly grim emails from Kampala, Kabul and Islamabad.

Canada’s health-care system may soon be found to not be nearly as strong as Canadians had believed it was. Still, the potential for a coronavirus-related medical and humanitarian catastrophe is, of course, far greater in developing nations, where there is terrible overcrowding in urban areas and little faith in governments to deliver public services at the best of times.

Few Filipinos, Ugandans, Afghans or Pakistanis can afford to see a doctor, let alone pay for hospital care of any kind. There is no chance that they will have access to the respirators and antibiotics that China and the West are using to try to confront this scourge.

The Iron Curtain that has descended on Europe is also falling between the developed world and the developing world.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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