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Isolationism Doesn’t Save Anyone

By Justin Y.C. Wong
Justin Y.C. Wong ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint Philosophy and Neuroscience concentrator in Dunster House.

If comparisons between the Great Pandemic and the Great War show that great events will “have permanent, drastic consequences,” we should think beyond the descriptive question of what the consequences are or may be, and consider the normative question of what the consequences should be.

World leaders in the aftermath of World War I failed to adequately prepare the world for international peace and cooperation, and the world suffered the consequences. Now, as we slowly emerge from the shadows of the pandemic, we should acknowledge the significance and necessity of international cooperation and commit ourselves to achieving it.

There are times in history when we find ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond any individual’s control, and some examples strike surprisingly close to the present pandemic: global rivalries spiraling out of control (World War I), an initially unknown viral pathogen decimating entire populations (Christopher Columbus’ conquest), and governments sliding into protectionism as existing market supply and demand are interrupted (the Great Depression). This predicament of passivity is especially real in the midst of a pandemic, when the existing world order is upended by a nonliving particle. In Anthony Fauci’s words, “You don't make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.”

But even if the virus makes the timeline, human agency is not completely denied. We are, in one way or another, choosing how to react in the face of forces beyond human control. We will be responsible for the consequences of our choices, and this means we must choose actively and responsibly.

We must truthfully and faithfully record what has happened already, which entails remembering the source of the virus (without subscribing to groundless and shameful conspiracy theories) as well as China’s initial coverup. But the story does not end there; instead of merely accusing China of rewriting the narrative of the pandemic, other countries should seek to co-write it. For the Western world to assume that the narrative is complete and definitive, with China as the culprit and the world order as its victim, would be to concede one’s agency and ability to change the course of the pandemic and, by extension, its legacies.

Now, more than ever, we must assert the virtues of globalism. From its rapid spread to the rapid worldwide shutdowns in response, the coronavirus has demonstrated how interconnected the world is. A global health crisis requires global solutions. President Barack Obama demonstrated this foresight in his handling of the Ebola crisis in collaboration with China, with the European Union simultaneously contributing as well. And during the SARS outbreak in 2003, the World Health Organization used its power, credibility, and authority appropriately to coordinate a successful response.

We need global unity and leadership to coordinate a worldwide response to the coronavirus as well. But based on the WHO’s willingness to parrot the Chinese government and the near-comic American “modern piracy” of protective equipment, leadership from the WHO and the United States is clearly lacking. This leaves a void to be filled by others, as — believe it or not — Russia, China, and Taiwan have. Instead of portraying these acts of aid through the lens of fear-mongering and suspicion, other countries should recognize that the geopolitical significance of aid only speaks to its necessity.

Of course, it would be naive to think that countries are doing this purely out of goodwill and devoid of any diplomatic considerations. In fact, they have much to gain by helping (of course, only if their aid is actually helpful). But that’s beside the point. After all, so goes any act of international cooperation — we all stand to gain from helping each other, and countries are thankful for aid, regardless of its source, because aid is necessary. We should be wary of the strings attached, if any, but we should also thank the countries that reached out and hold those that turned their backs accountable.

In the aftermath of World War I, countries refused to interact internationally. The U.S. embraced isolationism while France and the United Kingdom appeased Adolf Hitler’s ascent, eager to avoid international conflicts at all costs. They reasoned that the lives abroad are not worth a life at home. The League of Nations, designed to foster international cooperation, was effectively powerless, with no capacity to prevent the next war.

But in a globalized world, national crises do not contain themselves within artificial borders. In the form of refugee crises, threats of invasion and terrorism, second wave infections, and economic burdens, they come back to haunt us, sometimes with increased ferocity. Therefore, isolationism must not be a lasting consequence from the pandemic, especially as current issues, like climate change, are increasingly global and require global collaboration. Let us hope that the WHO (which must now weather criticism and decreased support), and other international organizations, will not follow in the League of Nations’ demise, but be strengthened and revitalized after this global crisis.

Today, we know better than before. We have medical knowledge about viral pathogens, hindsight from historical failures of international cooperation, requisite technology for constant communication, and cultural knowledge for respectful exchanges. Today, we have the toolbox to defeat an international crisis without sacrificing ourselves. We should use it actively and responsibly. And we should definitely not burn it to fan the flames of nationalist fervor.

Justin Y. C. Wong ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint Philosophy and Neuroscience concentrator in Dunster House.

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