By Ramzy Baroud
While the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to ravage almost every nation on earth, Arab countries remain unable to formulate a collective strategy to help their poorest and most vulnerable citizens survive the deadly virus and its economic fallout. Worse, amid growing international solidarity, we are yet to see a pan-Arab initiative that aims to provide material support to the countries and regions that have been hit hardest by the disease.
The lack of a collective Arab response is not unique, as it mirrors Europe’s own systemic failure: Exhibiting “solidarity” when it is financially convenient and turning its back, sometimes on its own brethren, when there are no economic incentives. For example, when Greece defaulted on its debt to international donors in 2015, Germany and other EU countries pounced on the opportunity to dismantle the country’s major financial institutions and profit from Athens’ mounting miseries. All the talk of European solidarity, fraternity and community floundered at the altar of greed and unhindered profits.
That was not the first occasion the opportunistic EU had showed its true colors. In truth, Europe is united not by common history or unbreakable social bonds, but rather by the shared belief that a united Europe is a stronger economic unit.
The same sordid scenario was recently repeated. As Italy began buckling under the burdens of coronavirus, it immediately, and naturally, sought the help of its European sister states — to no avail. Despite its sizable debt, Italy is a major player in Europe’s economic arena, and even the world’s. It is the world’s eighth-largest economy. But the country’s economy is now experiencing a rare freefall, especially in the poorer regions of the south, where people are literally going hungry.
The first country to come to Italy’s aid was not France or, unsurprisingly, Germany, but China, followed by Russia, then Cuba and others. This palpable lack of solidarity among European countries has further empowered the already prevalent ethnocentric view on the continent that is championed by far-right movements like Italy’s League party of Matteo Salvini. For years, he has advocated against European integration.
It will take months, if not years, for the political fallout of the coronavirus pandemic to be fully assessed. But what is already clear is that international and regional economic hubs are actively hedging their bets to consolidate their geopolitical positions in the post-coronavirus world.
Despite bashful American attempts to join the politically motivated international solidarity, President Donald Trump’s humble moves were too little, too late. In fact, a sign of the times is that Chinese and Russian aid is pouring in to help the US, which now has the world’s largest number of COVID-19 cases.
A compelling question, however, is where are the Arabs in all of this? Italy and Spain, in particular, share historical and cultural bonds and broad political interests with many Arab countries — interests that will remain long after the coronavirus is eradicated. Failing to register on the radar of international solidarity with Italy and Spain will prove to be a strategic miscalculation.
Israel, on the other hand, has activated its aid agency, IsraAID, which previously worked in Italy between 2016 and 2019 after a major earthquake killed nearly 300 people and left behind massive infrastructural damage. Israel uses such “humanitarian aid” as a political and propaganda tool. Its missions are often underfunded and short-lasting, but their impact is greatly amplified by a powerful official media machine that tries to project Israel as a peacemaker rather than a warmonger.
The truth is, some Arab governments do, in fact, provide badly needed funds and aid to countries that are devastated by wars or natural disasters. However, these efforts are often disorganized and self-centered, and, frankly, not at all motivated by true solidarity. That said, the absence of Arab initiatives in the field of international humanitarian solidarity dwarf in comparison to the lack of solidarity within the Arab world itself.
According to the UN, there are “101.4 million (people) in the region who already live in poverty, according to official criteria, and around 52 million undernourished.” A new policy brief issued last week by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia projects that an additional 8.3 million people are set to join the poor and undernourished masses throughout the Arab world as a result of coronavirus. Aside from empty rhetoric and useless press releases, we are yet to witness a major collective Arab initiative, championed by the Arab League, for example, to provide an Arab equivalent to the many economic stimulus plans that have been put in motion in many other countries and regions around the world.
In March, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a global cease-fire appeal, pleading with the world — especially warring Middle Eastern nations — to cease all conflict and unite all efforts in a single war against the coronavirus. Sadly, that call has so far gone unheeded. The war in Libya is escalating, not subsiding; Israeli killings of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank continue unabated; and the flow of refugees out of Syria, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries is yet to slow down.
Times of crisis, especially the kind that target all of us regardless of race, religion or geography, often constitute a wakeup call and present an opportunity for a new beginning, a new social contract, so that we may resurrect from the ashes of our collective pain to build a better world. Let COVID-19 be that opportunity, which will allow all nations, especially those in the Middle East, to take a stand against war, hunger and disease and extend the hand of solidarity to Africa and our historical allies throughout the world.