Isolationism is not the way forward during coronavirus

While Germany has taken in Italian patients for treatment, the UK has failed to participate in an EU ventilator scheme.

Patients from Bergamo arrive in Hamburg [Fabian Bimmer/Reuters]
A patient from Bergamo, Italy, is carried from a German air force Airbus A-310 'Medivac' at Helmut-Schmidt-Airport, Hamburg [Fabian Bimmer/Reuters]

Despite the unprecedented challenges faced by health systems, global economies and supply chains while coping with the coronavirus pandemic, there are positive indications that international cooperation between countries is helping to combat the spread of the disease.

Germany has sent its air force to bring Italian patients to German hospitals for treatment. Hospitals have taken in about 50 Italian coronavirus patients, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said last week. “We stand by our Italian friends. We can only manage this together,” he stated.

China is now producing 116 million masks a day – 12 times its supply prior to the outbreak. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma is donating protective face masks to Europe and the United States. The first shipment, containing his donation of 1 million masks and 500,000 coronavirus test kits has already arrived in the US, and the Chinese government has already offered to export protective equipment and medical staff support to Italy and other countries.

The global cooperation of countries working together to try to curb the spread of coronavirus shows the power of internationalism over isolationism.

Trade and labour supply protectionism that curb imports or exports while applying regulations to ensure people buy local rather than make global purchases, risk strangling essential external global supply lines, limiting product provision, raising prices, and creating labour supply deficits. Ultimately, it risks costing lives.

The risks thrown up by isolationist policies have already been shown in the UK, where farmers are warning that one-third of this summer’s food harvest could go to waste on British farms. This is mostly down to a chronic shortage of migrant labour caused by the coronavirus outbreak and post-Brexit restrictions on low-income workers.

UK farms and food producers rely on a migrant workforce of 60,000 seasonal labourers mainly drawn from Eastern European countries including Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.

Just weeks from now, fruit and vegetable crops will need harvesting, but travel restrictions across Europe and the UK, imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19, may make it near-impossible to recruit overseas staff.

This is compounded by the UK government’s announcement on February 19, 2020, that low-skilled workers would not receive visas under post-Brexit immigration plans.

The British Poultry Council has warned that 60 percent of its 23,000 workers are EU nationals, and the new rules “completely disregard British food production and will damage national food security”.

The UK government is urging employers to “move away” from relying on “cheap labour” from Europe and invest in retaining UK labour instead. But this raises concerns about how the UK intends to fill the demand for agricultural labour at harvest time from June to October.

One unintended consequence of the UK government’s coronavirus employee support scheme (announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak on March 20) is that British workers will be paid 80 percent of their salaries during the current shutdown and may not have the incentive to take other jobs such as food-harvesting work.

This false economy of isolationism during a pandemic is also shown in healthcare provision, both in terms of staffing and supply of materials.

During the UK’s Budget on March 11, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the migrant healthcare worker Immigration Health Surcharge – a fee foreign workers must pay to apply for the right to stay in the country – was being increased from the current level of 400 to 624 pounds (from $491 to $767) a year for each surcharge-liable non-EEA temporary migrant, as well as each dependent, from October 2020.

This creates yet another deterrent to migrant healthcare workers during a time of unprecedented demands requiring additional healthcare supply.

The EU procurement programme for supply of urgently needed hospital ventilators, initiated by the EU commission, uses the bulk buying power of single-market member states to obtain priority for ventilators and protective equipment, which doctors have warned are in short supply in the UK.

The UK still has the right to participate in this initiative as it is still in the transition phase of leaving the EU and, therefore, remains a member of the single market for the time being. Yet cabinet minister Michael Gove has said he is assured the UK, as an “independent nation”, does not need the EU scheme to get extra ventilators and has failed to participate in it.

This contradicts what the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, reportedly revealed when voicing his fears about a lack of ventilators in a telephone call to US President Donald Trump.

The two leaders spoke within hours of Johnson being diagnosed with coronavirus amid fierce criticism of the UK government’s failure to take up the EU’s offer to obtain a bulk supply the life-saving equipment.

Revealing the details of the telephone conversation, Trump said: “I said ‘how are you feeling’, he said ‘we need ventilators’.”

While the UK displays traits of isolationism which, in turn, is risking the health and food supply chains that are currently required to combat the impact of coronavirus, it appears that many other countries are doing the opposite – reaching out through international cooperation and seeing the benefits of internationalism rather than isolationism.

This worldwide health crisis provides us with an important reminder that many critical development challenges cannot be solved by individual countries working in isolation.

There is a clear need for a collaborative approach to find ways to combat the pandemic. Because right now, it is The World versus COVID-19.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.