Even before the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the idea that the United States’ healthcare system ought to be compared and criticized from an international standpoint has been popular. Former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders often states that “every other major country on Earth has achieved universal health care” as a way of justifying his proposals to nationalize the American healthcare system and create Medicare for All. Now, in the era of coronavirus, a recent Washington Post article on the marked differences between the U.S and South Korean responses to the outbreak noted that “the country’s single-payer health care system does not disincentivize low-income people from seeking preventive treatment, as is often the case in the United States.” As the U.S. struggles to make enough testing kits available to the public and craft a unified coronavirus action plan, it seems that this pandemic is only going to accelerate calls for the wealthiest nation on earth to look beyond its own borders for ideas on how to adopt more progressive healthcare policies and expand coverage.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the coronavirus has prompted a diverging response. “We will emerge stronger from this challenge, we will hold accountable those who inflicted it on the world,” said Senator Tom Cotton, referencing reports that the Chinese government had stifled potentially life-saving information about the virus. This has led to some politicians, including the President, referring to the disease as the “Chinese” or “China” virus, despite the fact that CDC officials have warned against using such a stigmatizing term. This attitude may have contributed to the travel bans put in place by the government, which were characterized by some as reactionary and contributing to the spread of the virus.
While these two differing attitudes aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, they do signal the fact that the pandemic is exacerbating a pre-existing divide in the U.S. about how we should perceive foreign countries and their policies. Should other developed countries serve as models for how we ought to function, or are they to be viewed with skepticism and suspicion? It’s not hard to find plenty of examples of this argument, from the current debate about healthcare to the discussion surrounding gun control, where some have called for the U.S. to emulate Australia’s gun laws, while others have disputed the claim that these laws have any applicability in the U.S. This dialogue is already being connected to the coronavirus outbreak, which has motivated some to make a stronger case for a more nationalist politics that dismisses globalization as utopian and unrealistic, while others see a lack of cooperation with international organizations as a source of the U.S.’s botched response to the pandemic.
Coronavirus intensifies this divide because it is a symptom of our ever interconnected world, in which people, ideas, and now diseases move more rapidly than ever before. However, this outbreak should motivate us to reform our approach to international cooperation. A pandemic is an opportunity to critically examine the ways in which we interact with other nations, but this is only productive if we are seeking to create a world in which these connections contribute to the well-being and safety of our communities, as opposed to writing off countries out due to a concern that the outside world is too dangerous or inferior.
One such way to create such a world may very well be to criticize the Chinese government’s cover-up of crucial information surrounding the virus. However, this is not a justification for giving up on attempting to have a productive relationship with China. Instead, it ought to make us more cognizant of the fact that in our globalized world, poor decisions by a single government can have ramifications on an international scale, which makes the case for continuing push for freer expression in Chinese society and implementing the diplomatic tools we have at our disposal in order to create change abroad and prevent future crises such as this one. Likewise, we should keep our eyes open for solutions to public health crises coming from other nations such as South Korea, even when such solutions may lead us to question how effectively our healthcare system operates or how much we prioritize the welfare of the poorest Americans. This is especially true in a country like the United States, whose response to the coronavirus outbreak, both in terms of healthcare and economic relief, has lagged far behind many others.
It is imperative that the U.S. learn these lessons on how it can better relate to other nations, but it must be in a fashion that forces us to recognize how inextricably intertwined different countries’ fates are, and enables us to work towards building a world in which we can take advantage of that interconnectedness to engage with one another in constructive ways. Succumbing to base instincts to blame other countries for the virus using racist labels and fear mongering is exactly the opposite type of response needed. Coronavirus is a challenge to the world order, but we must emerge from this crisis having used our inter-relatedness to gain new insights about one another, without turning on a global network that affords us the incredible opportunity to study and adapt the strategies of other nations in order to improve our own.