For those of us who had hoped the chaos of the past few years – Brexit, the Trump presidency, North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear threats, and 2019’s global wave of protests – would fade with the coming of a new decade and a new 12-year zodiac cycle, 2020 could not have begun less auspiciously. With more than 300,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and over 13,000 deaths in at least 160 countries and regions in a mere four months, the world has not been more rattled since the HIV/Aids crisis in the 1980s. The implications for public health and the global economy aside, the coronavirus outbreak, which the World Health Organisation finally declared a pandemic on March 11 after much denial, obfuscation and prevarication, is shaking the foundation of our international order – international solidarity – to its very core. To wash one’s hands regularly only when there is a pandemic, in effect, invites it. Whatever the underlying reasons, the WHO’s haphazard responses to the coronavirus outbreak when it was still relatively confined in China created the false and dangerous belief that Covid-19 was primarily China’s problem. During this precious window of opportunity, governments around the world took few proactive steps to prevent and contain viral clusters already existing in their countries, other than banning flights and travellers from China, as if the coronavirus had a Chinese passport. Giuseppe Conte, prime minister of Italy, the first European country to ban all flights from China (and Hong Kong), boasted on January 31: “The system of prevention put into place by Italy is the most rigorous in Europe.” Italy now has over 53,000 confirmed cases with over 4,800 fatalities – more deaths than China. There is little Schadenfreude to savour over the tragedy of Italy becoming Europe’s Wuhan. In fact, Italy’s situation sheds light on how our long-held beliefs in state sovereignty, international solidarity and international order may have been misguided. Politicians and scholars in Western countries have often relied on the founding of the United Nations, the United States’ dominance and the advent of the European Union to argue that the principle of state sovereignty has become obsolete and that sovereignty of a non-liberal state, like China, impedes the workings of the international system. Why March 11 will become a fateful day for the history books State sovereignty, in their eyes, is “organised hypocrisy”. Actions of non-Western states and opinions of non-Western scholars, meanwhile, are frequently dismissed or denigrated as subversive, dangerous, biased, apologist, distorted, irrational or simply uninformed. Nevertheless, in his seminal work, The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919-1939 , the late international relations theorist E.H. Carr observed a “universal reluctance” in all of us to accord priority to the interests of the international community over those of our respective national states. Ruth Wedgwood, an international law and diplomacy scholar at Johns Hopkins, has put it more bluntly: “International community is a dangerous reference point for the naive. Its connotation of sociability and commitment invites unwise reliance by those who must ultimately fend for themselves.” Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, and his “America First” wall-building nationalism was so popular among his followers precisely because he spoke to human beings’ base instincts for self-preservation and self-enhancement. Italy’s current predicament is particularly illustrative. One of the principal arguments against Brexit was that being in the European Union made Britain stronger (so much so that “Stronger In” was a slogan of the Remain campaign). Yet, in its hour of need, Italy has found itself completely abandoned by its EU partners, which are closing their borders and imposing limits on exports of protective medical gear. Covid-19 brings bad news for workers, but good news for the planet Ordinarily omnipresent and overbearing, EU bureaucrats, including the three presidents (of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament), have failed to come up with anything remotely resembling a comprehensive coordinated plan to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. While the European capitals assert and prioritise their own national self-interest, the Italian people are shunned like lepers. Italy’s appeal since February via the EU’s Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre for essential medical supplies has fallen on deaf ears, with not one EU partner offering any. Along with the concept of EU citizenship enshrined in the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties, the “spirit of solidarity”, in which EU member states agreed under Article 222 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU to act in the event of a natural disaster, has effectively been binned like a used face mask. To add insult to injury, Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, on March 12 implied it was not the bank’s job to keep Italy in the euro zone, sending Italian bond yields into a tailspin. Without irony, it is China that came to Italy’s rescue on March 12 with 31 tons of medical supplies, including ventilators, monitors, defibrillators and intensive care equipment, as well as nine medical experts. A friend in need is a friend indeed. Even after it subsides, the Covid-19 pandemic will have wide-ranging and lasting repercussions for our lives. The recovery of our shattered societies depends on our deep examination not only of personal hygiene, how we live, spend and travel, and how we treat friends, strangers and ourselves, but also of how governments – at local, national and international levels – have failed in their basic duty to protect citizens, and how they must learn and improve. As I argued in my book China, State Sovereignty and International Legal Order , it is through suffering, and trial and error, that the legitimacy of an authority and its demand for subjection may endure. Phil C.W. Chan is an observer on Hong Kong, China and international affairs, having worked in research, academia and think tanks in Asia, Australasia, Europe, North America and the Middle East in the past 16 years Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). 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