• Pierre Reiner

Lessons from the Coronavirus Outbreak

©Financial Times

The COVID-19 (hereinafter, coronavirus) outbreak has become the dominating concern of European governments. With its threat of high public mortality, overburdened hospitals, and economic recession, it is well on its way to defining the global politics of our current decade. The virus also teaches us an important lesson: European solidarity is not merely the product of wishful thinking by out-of-touch elites; it is a strategic necessity.

During a visit to Poland in summer of 2017, US President Donald Trump delivered a speech on Warsaw’s Krasiński Square. Much like his presidency itself, the speech made it clear that the notion of a unified “West” is no longer a relic of the past. President Trump spoke:

“Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.”[i].

With the EU declaring the promotion of “our European way of life” as an official priority[ii] and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro consistently emphasising the country’s “Judaeo-Christian tradition”[iii], it is clear that President Trump is not the only defender of a Western modus operandi in the international community.

But who is President Trump talking about here? Who are “the powers that seek to test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests”?1 Perhaps, the answer to this question is rather simple. It is China that is often being made out to be the antagonist of Western democracies, by constituting a counter-model to our way of living and governing[iv],[v]. After all, it is arguably the most successful contender to Europe and the US of the last thirty years. It is thus not surprising that Western governments are increasingly looking at China as a competitor.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed some more of these modern-day Cold War dynamics. After the beginning of the outbreak, observers quickly began to relate China’s triumphs and failures back to its system and to compare it to that of other states[vi],[vii]. The nature of the pandemic allows us to see how the same problem may play out in different systems. How governments choose to tackle the challenge therefore has consequences not only for how the world sees them but also for how it sees the systems, the styles of governance, and the values they stand for. Of course, governments are well aware of this reality. Any internal policy is always also an act of foreign policy.

Driven by its rapid rise, China has a real interest in positioning its system as a viable alternative to liberal democracy by demonstrating its strengths to the whole world[viii]. This way, it can ensure to be recognised as an equal and reliable partner. Coronavirus represents the ideal opportunity to achieve this goal.

COVID-19 will not only be a turning point in the recent history of China, but it will also force the EU to rethink how it handles major crises. The pandemic gives a painful glimpse at the union’s immobility and ever more fragile identity.

All Eyes on China

Finding itself confronted with the advent of a virus that had emerged within its own borders, China shifted from one extreme to the other. At first, it silenced anyone in the country drawing attention to the spread of coronavirus. It used its powerful state apparatus and online censorship tools to effectively mute the voices of medical experts and whistleblowers[ix]. In and out of China, the story of Dr. Li Wenliang went viral[x]. The doctor had warned the medical community about the new SARS-like pathogen at the end of 2019 but was quickly stopped by police forces from the Wuhan Public Security Bureau. His infection with COVID-19 and subsequent death sparked a nation-wide online solidarity movement involving radical demands for free speech. The Chinese government reacted by removing content and hashtags referencing Dr. Li’s legacy from its social media applications.

Suddenly, the Communist Party of China could no longer keep coronavirus hidden and had to opt for a plan B. China made its fight against the epidemic public. At the end of January, President Xi Jinping first publicly acknowledged that China was approaching a “grave situation”[xi]. In the ensuing weeks, the country became the centre of worldwide media attention, instituting increasingly strict measures at unprecedented speed. Cities across China followed the example of Wuhan by implementing quarantines and lockdowns. President Xi rewrote the narrative of coronavirus to establish China as a global health actor.

Beijing’s approach paid off. China managed to ‘flatten the curve’ and – as of the time of writing – is currently easing its Wuhan lockdown[xii]. Its course of action was met with applause by foreign governments and the World Health Organization (WHO) in particular. In fact, Chinese state media outlets have quoted WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom as saying: “China’s speed, China’s scale, and China’s efficiency… This is the advantage of China’s system, worthy for other countries to learn from.”[xiii]. Whether or not this quote is entirely accurate, it is easy to see how China’s success in fighting coronavirus will shed a positive light on the Chinese system from a Western perspective.

As the leader of an undemocratic system with centralised power, President Xi can take action fast without lengthy deliberations, the pressures of elections, and checks and balances. And while many democratic countries have activated emergency powers due to the pandemic, doing so is only ever a temporary measure. Outside of such crises, liberal democracies face some disadvantages that are easy for China to circumvent. Although coronavirus has been causing the country extreme harm, it has also allowed it to prove how effective its style of governance can be.

The ‘Bureaucratic Nightmare

What do we make of this? The stark contrast between the US and China could indeed be interpreted as the final nail in the coffin of Western democracy. Before assuming such a fatalist stance, however, it is worth having a look at Europe’s performance. The EU is generally seen as weak, slow, and unable to reach consensus. Thus, it should in theory be especially ill-equipped to handle the pandemic. Additionally, health is classified as a supporting EU competence. The EU can only foster coordination but not enact its own laws.

On the one hand, the EU announced temporary restrictions of non-essential travel both into and within the EU. The Council activated the integrated political crisis response (IPCR) procedure, and the joint rescEU public procurement scheme for facemasks and other personal protective equipment was put in place. Furthermore, the Commission mobilised tens of billions of euros for researchers and start-ups developing solutions against coronavirus, as well as for national health care systems and vulnerable parts of the economy.

On the other hand, national governments did not trust the EU enough to delegate any other high-stakes decisions to her. Measures were decided on unilaterally and according to the needs and interests of each individual country. The EU’s coronavirus response was one of little cooperation and member states did not deem it necessary to manifest their solidarity in any meaningful way.

It is true that countries like Spain and Italy were too slow in reacting to the outbreak and are currently suffering enormous consequences. Still, the results would likely have been even more disastrous had the pandemic been managed on an EU level exclusively. The past few weeks have shown that a return to national politics can help EU member states deal with crises more quickly and efficiently. Thanks to its system of exclusive, shared, and supporting competences, the European model therefore did not score considerably worse than that of China or the US.

On the Other Side of the Pacific

How, then, did the West perform? Up until recently, the US response to coronavirus remained comparatively reserved and timid. While President Trump’s travel ban on EU citizens certainly garnered a lot of criticism, the general focus of the COVID-19 crisis was centred around Europe and China[xiv]. The US are far behind on COVID-19 testing, despite President Trump’s claims – a factor that has likely allowed the infection to spread relatively unnoticed. As of May 2020, the country now has the largest coronavirus outbreak in the world both in relative and absolute terms. More than one million people in the country have been infected and over seventy thousand have died[xv].

Even now, it is unclear what strategy the government is pursuing and how it plans on balancing economic and health interests. What is clear, though, is that the damage to the US economy is severe and possibly unprecedented. Within one month, over twenty million US-Americans applied for unemployment benefits[xvi]. Large companies like Airbnb, Boeing, and Lyft are laying off massive parts of their workforce, likely exacerbating the already dire situation[xvii].

Overall, its response to the pandemic has been late, fragmented, and lacking the “boldness” that President Xi had insisted on from Chinese officials[xviii]. Moreover, President Trump was accused of shifting the blame by referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” during press briefings[xix]. After this, it is unlikely for Washington to receive the same WHO praise that Beijing has been the subject of.

Europe’s New Mission

The story does not end here. The lack of coordination and unity among EU members may have allowed for increased speed and differentiated policies in the short term. But the long-term damage of this procedure shall not be underestimated. Anger and disillusionment have been dominating public debates in Italy since Germany and France refused to provide facemasks and other essential medical products to the country in early March 2020[xx]. Unsurprisingly, this disappointment in Italy’s European partners has been to the advantage of Matteo Salvini and his far-right Lega party.

It was China that helped fill the gap by sending millions of masks to Italy. In a similar move, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba also donated over half a million masks to Belgium via its distribution hub in Liège[xxi]. In what appears like a large-scale publicity campaign, other firms like Huawei have been following suit, coining the novel term ‘mask diplomacy’[xxii]. Positive news stories about medical supply donations by China and Russia are overshadowing more critical media reports. Too little attention has been devoted to the fact that many facemasks imported from China have turned out to be defective and potentially dangerous, and that “80 percent [of Russian supplies donated] were completely useless or of little use to Italy” in the struggle against coronavirus[xxiii],[xxiv].

On top of this, the EU’s external action service recently published a report about massive disinformation campaign that originated in Russia and China and that spread dangerous rumours about COVID-19 among European citizens[xxv],[xxvi].


[i] Trump, Donald. July 6, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-people-poland/.

[ii] “Promoting Our European Way of Life.” European Commission, December 1, 2019. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life_en.

[iii] “Cinco Pontos Que Marcaram Os Discursos De Posse De Bolsonaro.” BBC News Brasil, January 1, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-46730648.

[iv] Rough, Peter. “How China Is Exploiting the Coronavirus to Weaken Democracies.” Foreign Policy, March 25, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/25/china-coronavirus-propaganda-weakens-western-democracies/.

[v] Rasmussen, Anders Fogh. “Hong Kong Showed China Is a Threat to Democracy.” The Guardian, July 16, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/16/hong-kong-china-democracy-europe-taiwan-beijing-eu.

[vi] Garrett, Laurie. “How China's Incompetence Endangered the World.” Foreign Policy, February 15, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/02/15/coronavirus-xi-jinping-chinas-incompetence-endangered-the-world/.

[vii] Yang, Yuan, Nian Liu, Sue-Lin Wong, and Qianer Liu. “China, Coronavirus and Surveillance: The Messy Reality of Personal Data.” Financial Times, April 2, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/760142e6-740e-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca.

[viii] Kurlantzick, Joshua. “Why the 'China Model' Isn't Going Away.” The Atlantic, March 21, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/03/why-the-china-model-isnt-going-away/274237/.

[ix] Hernández, Javier. “China Spins Coronavirus Crisis, Hailing Itself as a Global Leader.” The New York Times, February 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/world/asia/china-coronavirus-response-propaganda.html.

[x] Gallagher, James. “Li Wenliang: Coronavirus Death of Wuhan Doctor Sparks Anger.” BBC, February 7, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51409801.

[xi] Munroe, Tony, and Roxanne Liu. “Xi Says China Faces 'Grave Situation' as Virus Death Toll Hits 42.” Reuters, January 25, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-idUSKBN1ZO005.

[xii] Yang, William. “Coronavirus: China's Wuhan Prepares for the Uncertain End of COVID-19.” Deutsche Welle, March 31, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-chinas-wuhan-prepares-for-the-uncertain-end-of-COVID-19/a-52972874.

[xiii] Weinland, Don, Yuan Yang, Tom Hancock, and Alice Woodhouse. “China’s Xi Jinping Pledges to Overcome ‘Devil’ Coronavirus.” Financial Times, January 28, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/cc2be982-417d-11ea-bdb5-169ba7be433d.

[xiv] Barker, Tyson. “The Coronavirus Pandemic Tells a Tale of 3 Leaders.” Foreign Policy, March 13, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/coronavirus-pandemic-tale-3-leaders-trump-merkel-macron/.

[xv] “Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count.” The New York Times, May 5, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html.

[xvi] Mutikani, Lucia. “Coronavirus: Over 20 Million Americans Have Now Applied for Unemployment Benefit.” World Economic Forum, April 16, 2020. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/united-states-unemployment-claimants-coronavirus-covid19/.

[xvii] Voytko, Lisette. “Coronavirus Layoffs: Airbnb Sheds 1,900 Employees Amid Pandemic.” Forbes, May 5, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisettevoytko/2020/05/05/coronavirus-layoffs-airbnb-sheds-1900-employees-amid-pandemic/#388c6c485374.

[xviii] Wee, Sui-Lee. “Beijing Sees ‘Major Test’ as Doors to China Close and Coronavirus Deaths Surpass SARS.” The New York Times, February 3, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/03/world/asia/coronavirus-deaths-sars.html.

[xix] Kumar, Anita. “Trump Can’t Decide Whether to Blame China for the Coronavirus.” Politico, March 26, 2020. https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/26/trump-china-coronavirus-148806.

[xx] Chazan, David. “Germany Becomes Latest to Close Borders as Coronavirus Tests EU Solidarity.” The Telegraph, March 15, 2020. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/15/germany-becomes-latest-close-borders-coronavirus-tests-eu-solidarity/.

[xxi] Cerulus, Laurens, and Melissa Heikkilä. “Alibaba Donates 500K Face Masks to Belgian Government.” Politico, March 16, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/alibaba-donates-500k-face-masks-to-belgian-government/.

[xxii] Silva, Isabel. “'Mask Diplomacy': EU-China Ties Tested during Coronavirus Pandemic.” Euronews, April 2, 2020. https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/02/mask-diplomacy-eu-china-ties-tested-during-coronavirus-pandemic.