2007 - 2020

The Geopolitics of COVID-19

Sarah Glynn explores the geopolitics of COVID-19.

As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reminded us on Thursday, ‘for many people around the world, everyday life has come to a standstill, or is being transformed in ways that we had never envisaged. But wars and persecution have not stopped…’ Filippo Grandi was warning of the risk that border controls against the spread of COVID-19 will also block people’s ability to seek asylum – and calling for solutions to this in the form of testing and quarantine. In this instance, the viral pandemic is triggering geopolitical consequences; however, more often, it is geopolitics that is affecting the spread of the pandemic. This has disastrous consequences on attempts to bring it under control – disastrous for those directly affected, and for the world at large.

There is well-founded concern over what will happen as the virus spreads in war zones and refugee camps, where people who are already suffering from poor health and nutrition and from weakened immunity live cramped together with minimal facilities. And, even among camps for refugees and displaced people, there is a hierarchy.

Heyva Sor, the Kurdish Red Crescent, has just put out a heart-rending appeal to the World Health Organisation for help to resist the potential spread of COVID-19 in Shehba, in northern Syria. In this region, which had already been wasted by the war against Daesh, 200,000 people who fled the Turkish occupation of Afrîn are struggling to survive. On one side of Shehba are the jihadi gangs who Turkey has used as ground troops, and, for the rest, the region is surrounded by land controlled by the Syrian government, which severely curtails movements in and out of both people and supplies. As a result, the community in Shehba has always struggled to meet medical needs. There is just one small basic hospital, with a skeletal medical staff and less than minimal equipment. They have done all they can by way of isolation and organisation, but, without more medical help, this is far from enough. The WHO is providing some help in other parts of Syria, including the autonomous Kurdish area, but this is done formally through Damascus, and won’t reach the people of Shehba.

Across the border in Iraq, which is already seeing growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, the 12,000 inhabitants of Maxmur refugee camp are preparing for the worst. They are Kurds from Turkey, and although the camp is in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government has no sympathy with them or their progressive politics. The camp has been embargoed for eight months and has problems getting sufficient food and drinking water, never mind medical supplies.

Moving further east to Iran, the devastation caused by COVID-19 has been aided by the US embargo, which (despite the bluster of the Iranian government) has raised living costs and affected medical supplies. The US has responded to a rocket attack on US forces in Iraq, with an announcement of further sanctions, prompting Bernie Sanders to tweet ‘Iran is facing a catastrophic toll from the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. sanctions should not be contributing to this humanitarian disaster. As a caring nation, we must lift any sanctions hurting Iran’s ability to address this crisis, including financial sanctions.’ This has had no impact on the sanctions, though NBC reported that Trump refrained from a military response because, in the circumstances, it would make the US look bad.

Meanwhile, across the other side of the world, Venezuela is also staggering under US sanctions while preparing to face the pandemic, and President Nicolas Maduro has had his request for help to finance the necessary medical facilities turned down by the IMF. The US, Britain and other western nations have given their support to the right-wing opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president of Venezuela in an attempted coup, and the IMF claims that there is ‘no clarity’ among member states over who to recognise as leader. The people of Venezuela, like the people of Iran, are simply collateral damage.

So much for international solidarity from world leaders, even though they must know that a virus respects no borders and, even for their own interests, needs to be attacked everywhere. This is the same selfish, short-term thinking that is prioritising big business interests over the survival of ordinary workers, and that is spectacularly failing to grapple with the potential catastrophe of climate change.

They say that disasters bring out both the best and the worst in people. While world leaders demonstrate the worst, local communities are showing real human solidarity. But there is also a tendency to focus on immediate help and ignore – or even shut down – the politics. If we do that, then we will be as guilty of short term thinking as the politicians. If we let the politicians off the hook and fail to question the system that is threatening the greater part of humanity, we can only expect further disaster.

Comments (5)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I suppose that ideological (including religious) extremists may be less-than-averagely willing to accept world pandemic-mitigation norms if this clashes with their world view (will of god, Darwinian selection of the master race, invisible hand or whatever). Will COVID-19-deniers survive in office in the long run?

    Perhaps if refugees were quarantined as a matter of course (in successive monitored stages through to their expedited entry into a new society) in non-pandemic times as well, it could contribute to their acceptance. I have long believed that defensible borders, both inside nations along natural features like rivers as well as their national borders, are a reasonable requirement in the face of epidemics of any scale. It is a sign of a mature and responsible society that they would not let anyone leave identified as a risk of creating a pandemic.

  2. William Ross says:

    Sarah,

    I see that you write a lot about the Kurdish enclaves in Syria. I think it is tragic what is happening to the Kurds there. I am not much atttracted to Ocalan but there we are. You know what you are talking about.

    At the end of your article, on the other hand, you talk about something which you know nothing about. Let us look at this paragraph:

    “Meanwhile, across the other side of the world, Venezuela is also staggering under US sanctions while preparing to face the pandemic, and President Nicolas Maduro has had his request for help to finance the necessary medical facilities turned down by the IMF. The US, Britain and other western nations have given their support to the right-wing opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who declared himself interim president of Venezuela in an attempted coup, and the IMF claims that there is ‘no clarity’ among member states over who to recognise as leader. The people of Venezuela, like the people of Iran, are simply collateral damage.”

    I first visited Venezuela in 1989 just after the “Caracazo”. I lived in Venezuela for 8 years. My wife and child are Venezuelan. My wife’s best friends here in Aberdeenshire are Venezuelan or Venezuelan-Scots. We live Venezuela every day in our Spanish-speaking home. Venezuela is not “also staggering under US sanctions”. It is staggering under the despotic rule of a fascist, corrupt, incompetent, illegitimate and totally uncaring regime. Even the godlike EU can agree that the de-facto regime of Maduro is wholly illegitimate. Venezuela now has some 4 million refugees, lives with inflation in the millions of percent, is the most dangerous non-war zone city on earth with uncontrollable crime, and famine and unemployment stalk the land. I hear it every day! We found it so funny (sadly) when people started stockpiling toilet roll here as Venezuela simply stopped producing the product for a considerable time. Anyone going to a government office, or totheir work place, had to bring their own toilet roll. Coronavirus will work a slaughter in Venezuela because the hospitals are ill equipped, lack supplies and staff and the population is underfed, depressed and low in immunity (unless you are a Chavista opportunist).

    For the Chavistas, the helpless Venezuelan people are “collateral damage”.

    Venezuela is an immensely wealthy country with the World’s largest single pool of hydrocarbons, massive mineral reserves, bountiful fertile lands, perfect opportunities for tourism and a relatively small population for its size. I used to get really angry about people grossly misrepresenting what is happening in Venezuela.
    A few months ago Bella ran an atrocious piece by somebody called Bonnar which set out to prove after a few days visit that Chavismo was fine through talking with Chavistas! He might as well have investigated Nazi Germany by arranging a nice visit with Dr Goebbels.

    Now I am just cold. I have to accept the awful truth. Venezuela is likely to continue into the vortex, taking my Venezuelan family with it. Cry the Beloved Country!

    William

    P.S.: Mrs Ross here: How disgusted I am to read anybody defending the rotten Chavista regime. Get your facts right or spend some weeks (even a few days!) in the midst of my fellow countrymen and women back home to be able to picture the real situation. Thanks in advance.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @William Ross, when Dr Samuel Johnson stated that the last refuge of a scoundrel was patriotism, he lived before the age of social media, or he might have changed that to an imaginary supportive wife. Imagine if we appended all our social commentary that way: “and my spouse/alter ego/imaginary friend totally agrees with me, so there!”. So sad.

  3. William Ross says:

    Sleeping Dog

    I can assure you that there is nothing imaginary about my supportive wife. She is a real,living, hurting Venezuelan lady. My argument and her argument are based on solid facts. Only scoundrels ignore such facts.

    William

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @William Ross, what value do you imagine that I place on your personal assurances? After all, personal assurances are what snake-oil salesmen and the worst social media influencers rely on.

      You talk obliquely of facts, and ignore the point the article was making about US sanctions on Venezuela, which have been criticised by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet (who was also critical of the Venezuelan government); and have been responsible for around 40,000 deaths according to research by USAmerican think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research.
      https://www.medialens.org/2019/40000-dead-venezuelans-under-us-sanctions-corporate-media-turn-a-blind-eye/
      It seems strange to criticise a government’s handling of the economy while massively clouding the waters by attacking that economy with economic weapons and other sanctions, allowing its leaders to claim that any problems were due to a foreign assault including an illegal embargo.

      You refer to the article by Bill Bonnar yet you neglected to address the comment I made there about the evidence for opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s links with organized crime paramilitaries.

      Perhaps the next time Bella Caledonia returns to the subject of Venezuela you will have something more substantive to offer.

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