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The COVID-19 pandemic: past, present, future

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DIPLOMAT MAGAZINE “For diplomats, by diplomats” Reaching out the world from the European Union First diplomatic publication based in The Netherlands Founded by members of the diplomatic corps on June 19th, 2013. Diplomat Magazine is inspiring diplomats, civil servants and academics to contribute to a free flow of ideas through an extremely rich diplomatic life, full of exclusive events and cultural exchanges, as well as by exposing profound ideas and political debates in our printed and online editions.

By Guido Lanfranchi.

In an online press conference organized by Diplomat Magazine, the Ambassadors of Italy, United States, Armenia, and China discussed their countries’ experiences in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and reflected on the challenges lying ahead of the world community.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global problem, and tackling it will necessarily require international solidarity and cooperation. This could be the major takeaway from the webinar “The COVID-19 pandemic: past, present, future”, organized by Diplomat Magazine on May 20th, 2020. The event’s keynote speakers were four Ambassadors accredited in the Netherlands: H.E. Mr. Andrea Perugini, Ambassador of Italy; H.E. Mr. Peter Hoekstra, Ambassador of the United States; H.E. Mr. Tigran Balayan, Ambassador of Armenia; and H.E. Dr. Xu Hong, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China. The Ambassadors were joined by a large group of journalists, both from the Netherlands, who fueled a lively Q&A session.  

H.E. Mr. Peter Hoekstra, Ambassador of the United States, during COVID-19 press conference by Diplomat Magazine and the ambassadors of Italy, USA, Armenia and China. 20 May 2020.

The event was opened by Dr. Mayelinne De Lara, Diplomat Magazine’s Publisher, who underscored the importance of international solidarity in tackling the pandemic. “As we all know, 216 countries are now bravely fighting the outbreak of coronavirus. Lots of measures have been taken and important progresses have been made, although with different approaches in different countries. While the situation is still severe, we are confident that we can win the battle, as long as we stand in solidarity. The crisis reveals how dependent we are on each other; how connected and vulnerable we are. This crisis requires an international approach. International solidarity is more necessary than ever” – she said, before giving the floor to the other speakers.

The ambassador of Armenia, H.E. Mr. Tigran Balayan on the screen H.E. Dr. Xu Hong, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China.

In their remarks, some of the Ambassadors described the unprecedented challenges that their Embassies faced over the last few months in order to respond to the pandemic. For instance, the Ambassadors of Italy and Armenia recounted how their Embassies not only expanded a range of traditional activities, such as providing repatriation assistance to citizens and supporting international businesses, but also engaged in a set of new endeavors, such as procurement of medical equipment.

Beyond logistic issues, Ambassador Perugini explained how he also had to deal with important political matters, as he tried to convey the position of his government to the Dutch public, not only by personally engaging with the local press, but even by arranging an interview of the Italian Prime Minister with De Telegraaf

Ambassador Perugini said: “This crisis is a symmetric crisis, it hits everybody in an equal way, the virus does not discriminate”

H.E. Dr. Xu Hong, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China.

Some Ambassadors also described more at large their countries’ reaction to the pandemic domestically. Ambassador Hoekstra, for instance, explained the US response. He stressed how the response has been aimed at preserving the health and safety of the citizens, while also attempting to minimize disruptions to everyday life and the economy.

The Ambassador took pride of his country’s differentiated approach across states, as well as of the values that have underpinned the US response. In particular, he underscored the importance of engaging in a free public debate on the policies adopted in the face of the crisis, and he praised the solidarity showed by the US government, as well as by the private and non-for-profit sectors.

Ambassador Hoekstra explained : “The number one priority is resolving the pandemic crisis, getting the right treatment and getting a vaccine in place. That is our number one priority, not only for the US, but for the entire world. We can’t fix this problem, the EU can’t fix this problem, it needs to be resolved on a collective basis”

The Ambassador of Italy, H.E. Mr Andrea Perugini.

The Ambassadors of China and Armenia also praised their government’s reactions. In particular, both of them highlighted the quality of a strict approach, based on testing and tracing the contacts of positive individuals, which has allowed the two countries to significantly contain the outbreak. They described how life is now slowly moving back towards normality, with Armenia easing its lockdown, and China having already reopened 90% of its factories. Yet, both Ambassador Xu and Ambassador Balayan warned, the return to normal life should take place with caution, in order to avoid any further outbreak of the virus.

Ambassador Xu said: “Because of the most comprehensive, thorough and rigorous prevention and control measures in history, after more than three months of arduous fight, China has effectively controlled the pandemic in the mainland.”

During the event, a major focus of the debate also concerned the economic policies adopted by the four countries in order to counter the negative economic impacts of the outbreak, especially for the neediest sectors of society. The Chinese Ambassadors explained how China reacted both domestically, by issuing vouchers to stimulate the economy, and internationally, by stepping up production to ensure adequate global supply of the much-needed medical equipment.

The Armenian Ambassador described some of his government’s financial assistance programs, which have targeted families and enterprises in need.

Ambassador Balayan explained: “Since the beginning of the state of Emergency and lockdown, the Government has adopted around 17 programmes aimed at financial assistance to families, and businesses. ” 

Ambassador Hoekstra also took pride of his country’s response, highlighting how both Republicans and Democrats came together in Congress to set forth a stimulus package worth 2.2 trillion dollars. Italy too is seeking shield the most vulnerable segments of society – Ambassador Perugini explained, stressing however that the best way to respond to the pandemic’s economic shock is through engaging in coordinated policies at the European level.

Finally, the Ambassadors looked at the way ahead. Much of the debate focused on the race for developing a vaccine. The Chinese and US Ambassadors described the ongoing scientific efforts in this regard, and Ambassador Xu reiterated the pledge made by President Xi Jinping that if a vaccine will be developed in China, it will be made a global public good, ensuring accessibility and affordability for developing countries. While the Chinese Ambassador reiterated Beijing’s support for the leadership of the World Health Organization, Ambassador Hoekstra stressed that the WHO should improve its performance, and he called for an investigation into the root causes of the pandemic. In response, Ambassador Xu noted that Beijing is open to any scientific investigation into the virus, but it does not subscribe to calls for more political investigations on specific countries’ policy responses. 

To end on a positive note, it should be stressed that – throughout the event – several instances of cooperation across borders emerged. All Ambassadors voiced their appreciation for the help received by the international community, and they sought to stress in turn their own governments’ commitment to help other countries. Beyond government-to-government cooperation, Ambassador Perugini also welcomed the grassroots moral support received by Italy, notably in the form of the many messages sent by individual Dutch citizens to the Italian Embassy. In the face of a virus that does not care about borders, this is exactly the kind of attitude that the whole world needs.

About the author:

Guido Lanfranchi is a student and young professional in the field of international affairs. He has pursued his studies both at Leiden University and Sciences Po Paris, where he is currently enrolled. In parallel, he has been gaining professional experience through internships (first at the Council of the European Union, and currently at Clingendael Institute), as well as by working as reporter and associate editor for Diplomat Magazine The Netherlands. His research and work focus on the Middle East and Africa, and especially on conflict situations in these regions.

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