The US trails far behind other countries that prioritise humanity over politics.
Amid the Covid-19 (or coronavirus) crisis, terrifying news comes out each hour as the number of reported cases and the global death toll continue rising. The disease has been targeting all continents (save Antarctica) while recognising no geographical, political, economic, religious, or ideological identities or boundaries.
The very nature of this pandemic underscores the need for global cooperation in a struggle that must involve all governments and societies across the world.
As Covid-19 keeps on spreading, new bonds of international solidarity are on display. In certain instances, trans-regional assistance has taken scores of foreign affairs analysts by surprise. It is remarkable that China, Russia, and Cuba (rather than the US) are the countries doing the most to help fight coronavirus across Italy, a western country which has traditionally aligned extremely closely with Washington throughout the post-World War II era.
In other cases, the pandemic is prompting states with a history of tense bilateral relations to come to each other’s aid. A notable example is the assistance which Iran has received from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this month.
Yet when it comes to international efforts aimed at solving the pandemic, Washington is playing a harmful role. While federal, state, and local officials in the US attempt to contain the transmission of coronavirus in American cities and states, the Trump administration’s sanctions policies are undermining foreign governments’ abilities to do the same in their own countries.
That the US is sticking to such foreign policy tactics to isolate and weaken certain countries amid this global crisis is fueling much outrage worldwide.
UN officials and various heads of state have called on the Trump administration to lift/ease sanctions on these countries in order to help their governments and, by extension, the rest of the world deal with the coronavirus.
On March 24, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had a message from the Trump administration: “Humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorization for essential medical equipment and supplies.”
The UN listed Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe as countries where sanctions will severely undermine medical efforts to contain coronavirus.
In a letter written to the G20 countries, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote: “I am encouraging the waiving of sanctions imposed on countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and COVID-19 medical support. This is the time for solidarity not exclusion. Let us remember that we are only as strong as the weakest health system in our interconnected world.”
On March 13, China’s Foreign Ministry accused Washington of being “stubborn in sanctioning Venezuela, showing not the least respect for humanitarianism.”
One week later, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the US to end “unjust” sanctions on Iran, where one of its citizens dies from coronavirus every ten minutes. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has voiced its opposition to lifting sanctions on Iran in order to make a humanitarian exception to “maximum pressure”.
As the Atlantic Council’s Kirsten Fontenrose recently argued, there are three main reasons why.
First, the US administration’s perception is that sanctions on Tehran are achieving their goals.
Second, the White House keeps on emphasising that medical material is directly not targeted by sanctions. This is true but does not change the fact that sanctions are thwarting international financial transactions because banks do not want to handle such transactions due to their fears of US sanctions, making it next to impossible for Iran to access badly needed medical devices.
Third, there is a lack of any international or domestic pressure on the Trump administration to ease sanctions on Tehran.
Yet the US leadership’s use of sanctions as a foreign policy tool to weaken certain countries amid the coronavirus crisis will have many unforeseen consequences. As the pandemic does not know any borders, Iran’s neighbors, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, could easily suffer much from this disease in the days and weeks ahead.
With many Shia Muslims from Afghanistan and Iraq visiting Iran for religious purposes, these two war-torn countries remain incredibly vulnerable to outbreaks.
Unquestionably, Covid-19 outbreaks anywhere in the world threaten every member of the international community. If the pandemic continues ravaging Iran, it would be naive to believe that such a worsening nightmare in the Islamic Republic would not, at least at some point, harm vital US interests and those of Washington’s allies, particularly those in the Middle East and Greater Central Asia.
It would behove the American president and those around him to consider longer-term ramifications on the international stage. Even after a vaccine is developed, governments and societies all over the world will remember how global powers acted amid this crisis.
For decades, people of all nationalities will remember that Beijing delivered acid testing kits and Chinese medical experts to the Middle East’s worst hit country while Cuba sent its doctors to Italy.
The contrast between China and the US’s responses and strategies for handling this global disease will inevitably shape perceptions of these two superpowers in countless countries.
Ultimately, as power shifts away from the US in a world that is growing increasingly multipolar, the pandemic is informative of the demise of Washington as an international leader.
On March 23, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that Europe will send Iran $20 million in aid and support Iran’s first help request to the International Monetary Fund since the country’s 1979 revolution.
That the US’s western allies are refusing to help the Trump administration advance its anti-Iranian agenda highlights the extent to which European governments, as well as states worldwide, are looking less and less to Washington for leadership on global issues.
Even if a new administration takes over in January, it would not be easy for the US to recover from the damage done to America’s reputation as a global leader amid this terrifying crisis.
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