The geopolitics of COVID-19

Syrian refugees.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reminded us on March 19: “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 Organization 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 ISIS, 200,000 people who fled the Turkish occupation of Afrîn are struggling to survive. On one side of Shehba are the jihadi gangs that Turkey has used as ground troops, and, for the rest, the region is surrounded by land controlled by the Syrian government, which severely curtails movement 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 United States 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 US Presidential nominee Bernie Sanders to tweet: “Iran is facing a catastrophic toll from the coronavirus pandemic. US 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 had no impact on the sanctions, though NBC reported that US President Donald 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 International Monetary Fund.

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.

[First published in Bella Caledonia.]