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First of all, I would like to convey my congratulations to the wise leadership, led by His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, and to the UAE people; both citizens and residents, on the holy month of Ramadan, which falls this year amid exceptional circumstances.

May Allah, the Almighty, protect our country from all evil and make the holy month, as it has always been, a month of goodness and blessings for the whole world.

I would also like to congratulate the leadership and the entire country for the tremendous efforts being made to fight the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We are confident that we will beat the virus and overcome its challenges, God willing.

The novel coronavirus has become a pressing issue. It is rare to see a global issue receive this level of attention. It dominates discussions, day and night. Everyone is sharing their opinions on it; the young and the old, the educated and the ignorant.

His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, works day and night to ensure a comprehensive and proactive fight against the virus and, at the same time, strives to mitigate its negative effects. His well-known phrase, ‘We’re here for you’, still reassures

- Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi

It has become a topic in the media in which everyone writes about and offers their perspectives, even though it is a specialised issue in terms of medical treatment, including the response to it, as well as its political and economic consequences.

Despite its negative impact, this may be justifiable. The novel coronavirus pandemic, by all accounts, is the greatest challenge facing humanity since the end of Second World War. This is not because it is the first of its kind; plague, Spanish flu and other epidemics killed millions of people, but its consequences have impacted all countries of the world, with no exception.

It affects all aspects of life in a way the world has never experienced before. Therefore, governments have been forced to mobilise and take unprecedented measures to fight and contain the outbreak.

First: Impact on all aspects of life

The effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic have gone beyond all expectations. It is rare, even unprecedented, that a pandemic or disaster, whether natural or human made, could result in all of these implications. All aspects of human life, or group of people, have been affected by the virus in one way or another.

Its most significant impact will likely be on the poor and less fortunate in societies around the world, as it does not only threaten the quality of life, but life itself for millions of people; even animals have not been spared from this pandemic.

The effects of the virus outbreak have been catastrophic in various sectors of the economy, without exception. It has almost paralysed the tourism sector. The travel and tourism industry accounts for more than 10 per cent of global economic growth; what increases the importance of this sector is that it provides approximately 320 million jobs, i.e. 10 per cent of total jobs worldwide.

Indeed, tourism is a major source of income for many countries. It is also a multi-stage industry, which depends on other sectors. Therefore, it is an essential component of the economic development process; as well as a key source for foreign currencies.

The transportation sector, especially aviation, has been significantly affected. It has come to a complete standstill in many countries. Closing airspace has caused heavy losses, estimated at more than $300 billion, while closing borders has prevented the movement of people between most, if not all, countries. It has also disrupted global supply chains, which seldom happens, even in disasters or major wars.

All of these factors, and others, have caused a sharp rise in unemployment rates, reaching record numbers in some countries. In the United States, the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits stood at more than 26.5 million people in just five weeks; double the number of jobs lost during the Great Recession (2007-2009).

In early April 2020, an African Union study revealed that 20 million jobs are at risk in the continent, due to the consequences of the coronavirus.

One of the most serious effects is the increase in the number of poor in the world. The spread of the virus may undermine efforts to combat poverty.

Oxfam, an international non-government organisation focusing on the alleviation of global poverty, warns in a recent report that half a billion more people in the world could be pushed into poverty due to consequences of the virus; nearly twice as many as the number recorded in 2019. Indeed, half of the total world population, which stands at 7.8 billion people, may be forced into poverty at the end of this pandemic.

The virus outbreak and uncontrolled spread, especially in Africa and developing countries, may lead to the deaths of millions of people. As the World Food Programme forecasts, 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation, bringing the number to 265 million globally.

Second: Social impact

Undoubtedly, the outbreak has had social and psychological impacts. The precautionary measures that countries were forced to take, including isolation, social distancing and staying at home, have had different effects socially.

An increase in family violence and mental illnesses has been reported, showing that the loss of jobs has repercussions, not only on livelihood or the standard of living, but also on people’s behaviour and actions.

This is a result of the serious consequences the deadly virus has had on people’s lives, including their livelihood; from the nature of work to everyday activities, it has turned their lives upside down.

Third: Weak international cooperation

The novel coronavirus pandemic has revealed a clear imbalance in the system of international relations, as international cooperation in the face of the pandemic has generally been weak.

While China was the focus of tough criticism due to its lack of transparency and cooperation in sharing information on the realities of the outbreak, including its transmission and spread, some countries resorted, at the beginning of the outbreak, to closing themselves off, thinking they were safe. Some even underestimated the epidemic.

Even after the extent of the outbreak became more apparent, and the virus continued spreading to several countries around the world, international cooperation remained weak. With the exception of very few, each country began to focus on looking after its own affairs, as if they were living in a different world.

Moreover, international competition intensified; efforts to obtain medical supplies and equipment sometimes reached a point close to ‘piracy’, where countries attempted to unethically seize medical equipment, while other countries admitted that they resorted to theft.

In addition, some countries issued instructions and initiated systems, regulations and even strict legislation to prevent the export of vital medical equipment, such as respirators, necessary to save the lives of critical cases.

Researchers at the Microbiology Research Facility work with coronavirus samples to prevent or reduce the severity of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, US Image Credit: Reuters

All of this reflects the extent of the breakdown in international relations at a time that can aptly be called the ‘Age of Corona’.

This of course challenges several hypotheses on international cooperation and shared interest, particularly the imperative that the world has become one village.

This notion has long emphasised the role of international corporations in promoting global cooperation, the need for solidarity between nations by virtue of common interests, and unprecedented interdependence, especially since the end of the Cold War.

In fact, the current crisis has reinforced interpretations of the realism theory, which holds that the state is the primary unit and main actor in international relations, assuming the self-interest of states before any consideration of values and morals.

Fourth: The absence of global leadership

One of the most obvious manifestations of the novel coronavirus pandemic has been the absence of global leadership. This challenge was a real test for US leadership, especially after the criticisms it has been exposed to in recent years; its declining role as a global leader before the virus outbreak has seen it effectively abandon a leadership position.

Instead of spearheading global efforts, and assuming its prescribed role as a global superpower claiming to lead the world, its response, internationally and locally, was substandard at best.

The US president underestimated the severity of the situation locally, with the catastrophic outcome that the US became the epicentre of the virus outbreak and the worst affected by it, whether in the number of cases or deaths. Even after the outbreak, there was hesitation in taking precautionary measures, as well as a move to lift these measures before the virus was under control.

President Donald Trump has been accused of having more concern for the economy than for lives, in a bid to improve his chances in the upcoming presidential election in November. The truth is this crisis may crush his hopes of winning a second presidential term.

Fifth: The global energy market is the big loser

The energy sector is also likely to be one of the sectors most affected by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus; in fact, the repercussions have been truly catastrophic. Who would have expected, even imagined, that oil prices would drop below zero, in a historical precedent to the point where the seller had to pay the buyer, delivering the biggest blow to the oil markets in history?

Without delving into the details and factors affecting it, from supply and demand to quality, this is a reality that does call for closer examination. The deterioration of prices and the way it happened is of great importance.

First and foremost, it confirms that oil, commonly known as ‘black gold’, which has long been the backbone of industry, rather the entire global economy, is losing its value as the strategic commodity it once was.

This does not mean, in any way, that its role as a commodity, like many other commodities, will decline; it will remain the primary source of energy in the world for a long time. Nevertheless, there will be a push toward diversification of energy sources on a global scale and there will be greater investment in this field. The energy crisis also raises the alarm for countries that depend on oil as a main resource.

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It presents an opportunity for countries in the region to accelerate programs and policies to diversify the economy and sources of income, and to focus on the true investment, which is in people, not factories, as the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan said.

Sixth: The World Health Organisation at the forefront

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has not survived the impact of the coronavirus outbreak unscathed. Though the pandemic has highlighted the role of the Organisation, pushing it to the forefront, it has been the target of unprecedented criticism, especially regarding the implementation of International Health Regulations.

These regulations aim to ease cooperation among countries to save lives, as well as to preserve sources of livelihood, in the event of global diseases and pandemics. These regulations obligate member states to disclose, assess and report public health conditions.

The Organisation has been accused of delaying actions to address the virus. It was heavily criticised for its delay in announcing the virus as a pandemic, a step that was taken two months after the virus outbreak. By that time, the virus had already spread rapidly across the globe. Indeed, this delay had serious consequences.

The US President went to the extreme when he accused the Organization of colluding with China in covering up data and a lack of transparency. As a result, he suspended US funding of the Organization, which is between $400 and $500 million annually (the largest source of funding for the Organization).

This measure has been criticised by several international entities, viewed as a politicisation of the crisis. Of course, this reflects negatively on international efforts to tackle the virus. At the same time, it further indicates a crisis of trust and, indeed, limited international solidarity.

Seventh: The UAE’s internal and external efforts: ‘We’re here for you’

The UAE was one of the first countries that took precautionary measures, responding professionally to this unprecedented challenge. The UAE paid the utmost attention to safeguarding lives and focused on preventive measures, in addition to using modern and rapid testing methods. There has also been consistent and direct supervision from the wise leadership.

His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, works day and night to ensure a comprehensive and proactive fight against the virus and, at the same time, strives to mitigate its negative effects. His well-known phrase, ‘We’re here for you’, still reassures.

His Highness pledged to provide food supplies from all over the world. The UAE also did not neglect its humanitarian role and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan was in contact with most world leaders, supporting global efforts to combat the virus.

In an interview with the CBS News channel in the US, King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan said: “My dear brother, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed, has called and asked me whether he can provide any assistance.” He also said in a Tweet: “I say it, His Highness, my brother “Abu Khalid”, would remain a brother to me and to all Jordanians.”

Eighth: optimistic outlook despite the challenges

Despite all of the serious effects and implications of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, undoubtedly humanity, with the UAE at the forefront, will succeed in containing and defeating it. But this depends, of course, on finding a vaccine or a drug to combat the virus.

The truth is that although the virus belongs to the family of coronavirus already known to scientists, with influenza one of its most recognised consequences, the continuous efforts of laboratories and scientific research centers have not yet yielded a vaccine for the virus, not even an effective drug, which may raise many questions, especially in light of the huge scientific and technological progress that the world has witnessed in recent years and decades.

However, there are positive indicators, and the world’s laboratories are in a race against time to achieve this goal, especially with the launch of several joint global initiatives to accelerate the arrival of a vaccine.

Nevertheless, there are some important aspects that should be highlighted. The virus has changed the way we see many issues and how we approach many aspects of life, whether at the individual, family or state level.

The virus has restored the prominent position due to science and scientists, and has stressed the importance of investing in scientific research, in addition to highlighting the importance of the role played by the “white army” of medical staff. They were on the front lines and the first line of defence against the virus.

The crisis also opened the door for the better use of technology in important areas, such as distance learning and remote working; even at higher levels of state administration. Perhaps the most obvious aspect of this crisis is the clear indication of the strong ties that bind the leadership and its people, in an amazing model that deserves to be considered a distinctly Emirati hallmark.

— Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE author and director-general of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.