While the current health crisis is obviously the most important story at this time and most local newsgathering has been rendered impossible by stay at home orders in much of the world, the constant coverage of the disease has resulted in a lot of misinformation being spread and created moments of panic for most of us whether we have been personally touched by it or not.
Even in terms of politics, we are in uncharted territory and there is no way of knowing how things will play out. It could mean the growth of the authoritarianism and xenophobic policies we’ve associated until now with the populist right in a number of countries or, as we are seeing in some others, it might mean at least a temporary end of the Neoliberal economic model forced on much of the world since the 1980s and a return to social democratic or Keynesian policies popular in northern Europe especially, prior to its dominance.
One of the main outliers in the so-called developed world to a socially democratic turn may be the United States, with two political parties that differ on social issues but usually seem to agree on most economic ones. Thus far the U.S. Congress has created ‘stimulus’ packages that seem to follow the playbook of the last financial crisis on steroids and leave ordinary workers to mostly fend for themselves.
Still, this historical moment could present an unprecedented chance to create solidarity between nations, even those previously seen as enemies or rivals.
Unfortunately, the more hopeful point of view may be naive when we consider that it took until this past Wednesday for the full U.N. Security Council consisting of the 5 permanent and 10 elected members to meet to try and address the ongoing emergency. Nonetheless, the meeting did result in one positive sign for international cooperation with Tunisia and France putting forward a resolution calling on, “all parties to armed conflicts to engage immediately in a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days.”
One thing that should be addressed but probably won’t be by the United Nations as a whole is the issue of punishing economic sanctions.
While the English language press showed some interest early on to the terrible crisis still unfolding in Iran, where the Covid 19 arrived before it was really news in the Western Hemisphere, little time was devoted to the underlying issue of sanctions and the Islamic Republic’s inability to access medically necessary equipment from surgical masks and gowns to ventilators to save patients and protect the healthcare workers essential to the country’s efforts to stop the novel coronavirus’ spread.
Beyond the actual sanctions themselves, governments and companies that may be able to provide medical and other humanitarian supplies not technically banned under them may be risk averse and avoid dealing with countries like Iran to protect themselves from potential liability.
Incredibly, rather than lifting or easing the embargo on Iran as the crisis was already unfolding at home, the current U.S. administration added to them in March.
As economist Jeffrey Sachs argued at the time in a statement cited by the source above, “This policy is unconscionable and flagrantly against international law. It is imperative that the U.S. lift these immoral and illegal sanctions to enable Iran… to confront the epidemic as effectively and rapidly as possible.”
In the Western hemisphere, while other countries have or are facing sanctions, two have been under what amount to economic blockades for many years. At the same time these countries, Cuba and Venezuela, have been at the forefront of efforts to help other countries in the fight against Covid 19.
Cuba was already known throughout much of the world for the quality of its doctors, many of whom have been deployed to hot spots like northern Italy to help health systems overwhelmed by the disease. This type of medical solidarity didn’t begin with this crisis but has certainly been highlighted by it and should earn the goodwill of other nations once it has passed.
Unfortunately, besides facing what amounts to a half century blockade, Cuba is among the nations that have publicly complained about seizures of equipment needed to combat the growing number of infections in their countries.
The first such incident, during which a donation of diagnostic kits, ventilators and other supplies from Alibaba founder Jack Ma were set to arrive on the island on March 30th they were instead seized under the1995 Helms-Burton Act, with American authorities arguing what looked a lot like piracy was legal under, “the regulations of the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed against the country of destination.”
The island nation was also cut off from an earlier supply of much needed ventilators due to a Swiss company, Imtmedical A.G, being purchased by an American firm, Illinois based Vyaire Medical Inc., with the latter reneging on deals negotiated long before the purchase. Besides the obvious shortage created by the current pandemic, ventilators are used in numerous medical situations including to treat lung infections and ALS, and should be shielded from sanctions as medically necessary.
Those tasked with creating and implementing American foreign policy once again showed that they are not adjusting to the current crisis when last week, the United States made an offer to Cuban ally Venezuela’s leadership shortly after issuing indictments for 15 of them including President Nicolas Maduro Moros on dubious drug trafficking charges: form a power sharing agreement with the opposition and the brutal sanctions regime made worse by an oil war and the ongoing pandemic could be lifted or at least eased. It would require the country’s president as well as the self-declared president and leader of the opposition, Juan Guaido, to stand aside and allow a ‘transitional council’ to govern ahead of fresh elections at some future date.
This seems to signal the end of the ill conceived Guaido project. The unelected leader pushed as a replacement president for Venezuela by the United States and 50 other countries was shown time and again to not be up to the task, with his grandstanding often putting his own supporters at risk. What Guaido and the opposition do still have working in their favor is a generous cash flow from assets seized from Maduro’s government and handed over to them by U.S. authorities, including billions from the country’s state owned oil company, PVDSA, which were transferred to them in early 2019.
An attempt by Venezuela’s government to get a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund was also unsuccessful, with that body saying, “there is no clarity”, in terms of the legitimacy of the country’s government due to mostly western backing of the country’s opposition.
As explained by a number of authors in an article on the web-site Counterpunch, “The Venezuelan pharmaceutical body (CIFAR) and the Venezuelan medical equipment companies said that they would be able to increase production of machines and medicines to stem the crisis; but, they said, they would need key raw materials that have to be imported. It is to pay for these imports that the Venezuelan government went to the IMF.”
By not responding to the global health crisis in a humane way, the American foreign policy establishment and many of its allies are eroding the country’s soft power and risk having much less influence over world affairs when it passes. We are often told by the likes of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that sanctions and other forms of economic warfare are not directed at the populations of countries targeted but rather at their leadership. This crisis has made it plain that this is a lie.