Of solidarity in the virus days

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

As information – even more so, images: at such situations the flow of visual data wins the day – over the Covid-19 grows and grows, the notion of solidarity is ever more present in the forefront of public debate. If anything, solidarity would be the central tool to get through such difficult days. But … is it after all?

A first glitch occurred when it became known that Germany, invoking the general directive on exports of protective equipment, was to block such exports to other countries. Weighing the furore that ensured, Germany’s Foreign Office announced that the Federal Government “adapted” the General Directive so that exports of “urgently needed supplies” be allowed “as long as vital needs in Germany are met”. The EU Commission rushed to welcome such a position shift.

[To compare: China has already started to send planeloads of excess protective equipment – crucially: respirators – to Italy].

We had already a glimpse of not-so-enthusiastic solidarity when the par excellence institution of a solidarity approach to crisis, the EU, failed the very first test. How so? When launching the new era of ECB support, focusing on commercial bank lending (some long-term refinancing aimed at SME needs, further to an additional 120 bn euros worth of QE until year’s end), Christine Lagarde did the exact opposite of Mario Draghi’s “Whatever it takes” pronouncement. She first voiced the right message (that governments had to shoulder adequate fiscal measures), but then quipped “we [the ECB] are not here to close [bond] spreads”. Sure enough, Italian sovereigns took a tumble! Lagarde had to back-track, getting on record that [she was] “fully committed to avoid any fragmentation of the  euro area” and acknowledging the (self-evident) fact that “high spreads due to the coronavirus impair the transmission of monetary policy”. But the damage was already done: the main damage was not the trumble in the markets, but the crash-landing of the hopes for European solidarity . Now, over to the Eurogroup!

To round it up, a nasty, ongoing incident in the race to get a preventive vaccine and/or antiviral drug for Covid-19 “in time” to contain the spread, or rather to moderate the impact of the pandemic. Nothing strange in the fact that from Israel to Belgium (and, of course, from the very first day China) laboratories, pharma companies and start-ups do they best “to be first”. Also, nothing unexpected in the fact that the behemoths of the U.S. and Germany have joined the race – with their authorities close nearby. But the incident we are referring to is the American attempt to effectively kidnap the research of a German biotech company, from Tubingen, and land its development (and, thus, commercial exploitation) in the States. The CureVac case, as it will be known (it was made public by Die Welt, so it is not a matter of gossip nor a conspiracy theory), now that German/European authorities have entered the fray once it became known that none less that President Trump had joined the efforts to lure CureVac, is a nasty encounter with “every man for himself” in international relations.

Of course, real solidarity is for each and every person – at the bottom of the ladder – to behave in a responsible way towards her or his neighbour, helping out in cases of need, keeping the kids away from grandparents avoiding crowded venues, accepting in a good-humoured way restrictions and so on, and so forth. Still, when the very notion of solidarity gets so easily frayed at the top, solidarity in the virus days proves no easy matter.