Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 46: COVID-19, Geopolitics and Climate Change — with Paul Rogers

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Paul Rogers


Paige Smith  0:06  
Hello, everyone, welcome to the second episode of our Below the Radar Conversation Series. Today we have guest speaker Paul Rogers, a professor emeritus in the department of peace studies from Bradford University in the UK. Paul chats with Am Johal, about how COVID-19 is affecting geopolitics and climate change.


Am Johal  0:34  
Thank you so much for joining us, Paul. I'm just wondering if you can begin with you uh introducing yourself a little bit.

Paul Rogers  0:41
Yes, sure. I'm Paul Rogers. I'm currently emeritus professor of peace studies at Bradford University. I started off working in the life sciences and worked in the tropics, in East Africa, on rural development, and moved across to environmental security over the years, and then into Peace Research. So it's been a rather checkered career. My original PhD was actually in plant pathology, so quite quite a long way from that, but I’m a now peace researcher and have been for the last maybe 40 years or so.

Am Johal  1:09  
And I just realized sitting on my bookshelf, I have an old book of yours from a few years ago, which I found really quite interesting. And thanks for taking the time to join us during these very crazy, disorienting times. 

Paul Rogers  1:23  
They really are yes. Indeed yeah.

Am Johal  1:25  
And for a lot of people who haven't experienced something like this in their lifetime, it's really hard to, you know, make sense of what's ,what's happening. And as you've pointed out already in  an article that you wrote with open democracy that US intelligence already knew about a possible pandemic since November, Taiwan was screening passengers by late Decembernd it seems that when the proliferation of the pandemic is analyzed, in the future, the months of January, February, right until the middle of March 2020, are going to be looked at quite closely in terms of decisions that were made and not made. But what's happening also is what's being laid bare is kind of the frailties of international institutions, the global system. institutions like the UN, the World Health Organization, or even regional entities like the US or like the EU, or the the privatized medical system of the US, wondering if you can kind of share some of your thoughts in terms of at least the international systems that are meant to be in place to um, uh, be a kind of tripwire to see what's happening so that we don't get the type of outcomes that we've had thus far.

Paul Rogers  2:38  
Well, if we were to start with the World Health Organization's one of the UN agencies, that was probably a lot stronger 12 or 15 years ago, when Gro Harlem Brundtland was the director is slipped a lot in recent years. The funding is more or less continuous but the support from individual countries has dropped off a lot. I think is part of the, the wider problem that no doubt we'll have to discuss. And that is the rise of sort of, well, almost multiple excetera isms countries that have taken a kind of populist path, or the leaders have taken a populist path and see the international community as basically secondary to their own positioning and the country and their own countries positioning. And I think in many ways, the international system is really at pray to that. You can draw comparisons, I think probably one of the best ones, well, it's quite a long time ago, was in the early 1970s, there was pretty suddenly a global food crisis. It sort of broke in the winter and spring of 1983-84. And it was really getting extremely serious within three or four months. And at that stage, although it didn't have the intensity, the immediacy of what we're facing now, the UN was the kind of acceptable body, called a huge conference in Rome in November 74. So I say, it's 84 not 1974. And called a major conference, the World Food Congress. Although it didn't take the necessary action immediately. It basically accelerated it catalyzed a number of countries to make radical donations to a fund to relieve the immediate pressures. And in fact, looking back on it, it probably prevented what would have been a catastrophe. But at that time, even in the middle of the Cold War, where this really ran beyond the east/west problems of the Cold War, the UN was sufficiently strong to oversee that, and virtually every country in the world turned up. It's difficult to envisage that at the present time, and that has an awful lot to do with the nature of a number of the states. I think the key ones obviously would be the United States and Russia, where you have your Putin that's totally determined to see Russia as a great power again. Uh, Trump, not so much wanting to America, make America great again. He feels he's done that for good or ill, but to keep America great, but it is not just them, you have the same problem with uh, Macron to some extent coming in and wanting to develop France's standing, Iran in Turkey, Modi, certainly in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and our beloved Boris Johnson here in Britain. So right across the board, there is this movement towards states expressing themselves much more forcefully, and essentially seeing less concern with the United Nations. And also concern with international cohesiveness, you might say, and that exists even at the regional level with the problems that the EU has had. Although in some ways that has done rather than more as this crisis has developed, than maybe people give it credit for, because in a country like Britain, that is all to one side, because we have the Brexit situation playing out at the same time. So I know that's a rather rambling answer, but in a sense, I think, why is it that international institutions have not come to the fore? Basically, because we're still in a phase of nationalist populism affecting too many key countries. And you just can't imagine somebody like Trump and his administration being in any way supportive of the United Nations. Sadly, other countries that could at least play out to this rather than more, are failing to do so. But I think as this particular crisis has developed, its immediacy, and frankly, its seriousness in the global north. Then countries are much more concerned with their own internal positions. It's tragic, in many ways, it's going to be even worse than the next few months because in many ways, the real problem for this whole crisis is going to be what happens in the global south, where massive amounts of help will be needed. So it is, one has to be rather pessimistic at the times but essentially, this is linked very much to the rise of populisms in recent years, and particularly the nature of certain world leaders just now.

Am Johal  6:54
And you know, as you mentioned, that we obviously these forms of neo authoritarian populism are, were already present when the pandemic began to unfold, and it certainly brings these things into the surface and magnifies divisions that already exist on the ground. And what's your reading of how countries like China, the US, India, the UK, and countries in the global south in terms of their approach, their varying approaches to dealing with COVID, as it, as it appeared,

Paul Rogers  7:26 
They do vary hugely. I mean, the Chinese clearly there were major international issue, sorry, major national issues there. It appears pretty well certain that the city and provincial authorities, the city authorities in Wuhan, when they realized what they were facing, were very reticent about making the full facts known to Beijing. Maybe because they believed that they would suffer pretty grievously, once it was realized what they'd allowed to start. In Beijing, I think there was initially a very strong feeling, let's try and hold this, control it and maybe tell as little as we can to the rest of the world, because it will look bad for us. That changed, I think, around the middle of January, when it became blatantly obvious in Beijing, that this was a massive problem, and that very urgent action had to be taken. And as soon as you have the lockdowns starting in Wuhan, then essentially, it all became much more open. And to some extent, the Chinese were open at an early stage in providing the genetic information that they had. And in fact, interesting, although we tend to forget it, when Italy really experienced major problems a month or so later, there were emergency supplies airlifted from China to Italy, because the peak of their crisis was just passing. So that I think was the situation in China.

Paul Rogers  8:45 
If you take the United States, well, that really has been very reticent and that is in the person of Mr. Trump himself. Very reticent to even consider that this was a major problem, I mean, treated almost as a hoax at one time. That I think have paid dearly, people have paid dearly for that in the United States with what well over 50,000 deaths and rising by 1000 or more a day. But Trump obviously is continuing with his view that essentially, others are so to speak out to get the country. And this is not an internal problem. I think the Italians in some ways, were remiss in recognizing what was happening so quickly but on the other hand, they are extremely unlucky in that you had this major outbreak in Lombardi with a rather older population, and in pretty crowded cities and it really hit them very hard. But I would have to say that given what was happening in China, then what you see is a number of European countries being very slow. In contrast, that it was said to South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and essentially in some ways, Japan as well and certainly Hong Kong. Now one has to remember that all those countries have been experiencing the SARS pandemic, that, not that many years ago. And the problems there were really pretty deeply embedded in their psyche, because SARS was potentially very dangerous. It didn't have the rapid spread qualities of COVID but it was actually a lot more lethal, and they were able to more or less get on top of it. So they were aided by that. Now, if you look at some of the other countries, Modi really was late coming to it, and then has used a very authoritarian way of trying to control it. It remains to be seen whether that will work, because already there are many problems in India and it seems already to have exacerbated religious differences as well. Obviously, the country that I know best is my own Britain. And there, I'm afraid it's a pretty scary story, frankly. Partly, I think, because the government of the day was really completely concerned with Brexit. I think also it had just won, to everybody's surprised, an almost landslide general election in mid December, and was really almost resting on its laurels. But partly, I think the nature of the government itself under Boris Johnson was frankly, rather laissez faire, it was really quite laid back. And as a result, many weeks were lost, really, most of January, most of February, and in fact, into March were really lost in Britain. And the government seemed to have had this idea, at an early stage sort of mid February, so that you weren't going to handle this by controlling it, you had to let it run and care for the people badly affected. And therefore, you will build up what was called herd immunity. There's very tricky science in that because nobody really knew to what extent if somebody had the virus themselves, they were then immune for any length of time. And in fact, the WHO, now a couple of months later is warning against assuming that you will actually bring immunity like many forms of influenza do. So I think in Britain, it really is a pretty sorry tale. And while it's, with surviving it so far, we've already had one, something like 30,000 deaths, including people dying in care homes and at home, um, we've maybe reached its peak. But we have the added problem as a number of countries do that we've had about 10 years of austerity going on from the 2008-9  crisis. And with that 30 years of the move towards the much more neoliberal model and we really find there's been serious underfunding of so many public services. And the case of the National Health Service, which Britain's used to regard as the kind of jewel in the crown, than the National Health Service hasn't been lacking for funding, but it hasn't had the additions, it needed to cater for an aging, more sick population. There are many problems that are really come to the fore now. So we have that added dimension, a weak social care system, or national health system, which has not been up to scratch, although they've achieved marvels in the last uh four or five weeks, and at least 100 health workers have died as a result of that. So there's been a great deal of bravery there. But I think at some stage, it will dawn on people that in fact, we should not even have got to this stage in Britain, because after all, we came after the obvious experience of the French, the Spanish and the Italians. So there's going to be a lot more politics of that I think in the coming weeks and months.

Am Johal  13:20  
You know, pandemics historically bring the question of the role of the state and its relationship to the economy squarely into focus again, and you mentioned um, neoliberal policies. And perhaps this might be looked back upon as the the moment that neoliberalism ended, it's perhaps too early to say, but how do you think in the context of a global pandemic, such as this one, where there is a kind of collective trauma? You know, how can we reimagine the role of nation states and international institutions? Because in some sense, this is almost like a post Second World War environment, or as you mentioned, the early 70s, there have been previous crises before and attempts to kind of remodel, because the weak spots in the system certainly get exposed in moments like this.

Paul Rogers  14:09
They certainly do. It's incredibly difficult, so I must admit, yes, once this does hear talk of the fact that this is really almost the nail in the coffin of neoliberalism. Well, I seem to remember people saying that in 2009 and 2010, you know, we can't go on like this, and in fact, we did. And not only that, but it got worse in the form of if you follow the strictures of the neoliberal outbreak, outlook, then obviously, austerity was really the only way forward, sort of directly opposing modern monetary theory and all the rest. But the issue here, I think, is that we have had this move over the past 40 years or so, to a form of economic political economy almost. Which in many ways shrinks the power and the influence of the state and leaves it far more to the market, and there are many components of that, basically a curb on strong labor relations and unionism, a tax system which basically generally helps the competitively successful, and all the rest of it. Privatization of state assets and the rest, which went rapidly back in the Thatcher years in Britain and again more recently. All that whole basket of things, probably most extreme in Britain, less so in some other members of the global north, but still permeating things because through the World Bank of IMF in times past, the Washington Consensus ensuring that this was exported in many different ways to much of the global south. Now, it's obviously the case that we're going to have to make some major changes and that in some ways, if, for example, the um COVID virus had been even more dangerous. In other words, crescent in the human body for seven or eight days while it was infectious, but then more lethal, then we would be in a really dire state worldwide. Now we're not because although it has this very clever and viral trick, if you like, have not been detectable except by fairly complicated means, when it symptomless, but it's infectious then at least it is not as lethal as it could have been. But if that isn't the warning, then you really do wonder what is. And I think in some ways, the only hope is that, having learned this lesson, there will be a move towards far greater cooperation that we will see the kinds of leadership combined with, combined with public determination to carry this through. 

Paul Rogers  16:40 
You know, if you go right back to the founding of what was originally the European Economic Community, a lot of that, those original six states, they were actually about preventing a third European Civil War. Monnet, Schumanr and the rest had battled the record remains right through  but it in a sense, although they were not notable leaders as such, they played a crucial role in that at least temporary transformation. I don't see people like that at the moment, I'm afraid, either in positions of power, or indeed, in many ways of positions of public awareness. And that I think is is really one of the great worries I have and it is rather different in a way from what has been happening in the, if you like the parallel area of the risk of climate breakdown, were until the COVID thing came rapidly on the scene, we were really seeing a major change in public mood in many countries, and recognizing that we had actually to work together. So again, I'm afraid I'm rambling on a little bit but I suppose in one way, you could say that if we are able to handle COVID-19, effectively, and use it as a way of improving international cohesion, cooperation and radical actions in terms of economic change, then that could be the way in which we get an idea that we could even handle the big one. I mean, COVID-19 is bad enough, but it basically pulls into insignificance compared to the impact of climate breakdown. So to that extent, to get this right, there's a bigger chance of getting the bigger problem, right.

Am Johal  18:10  
Clearly, the effects of COVID-19 are going to land down differently in places, particularly in parts of the world that have particular vulnerabilities you've done a lot of work in uh the Middle East and can you speak to how the international system can better respond to the situation on the ground where communities are uh vulnerable, because as you said, as the spread moves to Africa, to the Middle East, to refugee camps, there's going to be particular um needs where the international system is going to need to respond in time.

Paul Rogers  18:46  
It's a massive task. I mean, one of the problems obviously, is that countries in the global north country like Britain, France, and the rest, are so concerned with their own positions, and they're not looking outwards. In one sense, what has hit them is only just starting to hit the global south, a lot of that is due to, is actually down to the fact that much of the transmission of this disease initially was by people moving around by air, and the movements have been much more across the northern hemisphere. So in other words, the rate of, if you like inoculation into the global south has been rather slower. Now that ordinarily might give us more time for action but meanwhile, the problem has developed so much in the global north, that really, people are not concerned with what's happening worldwide. But it is absolutely the case that if we think there are problems now, in countries like Britain and Italy and the rest, then they really are pretty small beer compared with what could happen across much of the Middle East. And what is already happening in some Latin American countries and indeed, in some countries in Asia. It's notable how some have managed to get on top of it, though some of the names ones are named earlier on, but others clearly haven't yet and don't look to go to. The kind of aid that is going to be needed is going to be massive, both technical, humanitarian, and the rest. And certainly as soon as any kind of vaccine develops, which has proven to be of value, then that really has to be built up tremendously quickly as a genuine international endeavor. Once it can be shown to be safe, then it may be that the bulking up could be done far greater, at a far greater  speed. And that in a sense, would be a marker for whether countries can work together quickly and to prepare for that in the coming months in fact. If we take the hope that sometime towards the end of this calendar year, the early vaccines provable will be more or less there becoming available. So they can be bulked up and spread around in the first few months of next year. The planning for that has to be done in the next few months, on the assumption that it's going to work at some stage. That will probably be the biggest single contribution that could be made, not just in the global north, but much more significantly across the south as well. So here, again, there's a possibility for optimism, we are then going to need the leadership and the ability of political leaders in the north to rise above their immediate domestic problems, and take their countries with them. Because in many countries, the argument will be charity begins at home, we must help ourselves, forget about the rest and with all the anti-migration mood that you still have in many countries, that will be an added thing. Many other people will take a much more positive view and I hope their voices are heard. But it will require political leadership of an order which we do not normally have, I'm afraid in the current world.

Am Johal  21:41
You mentioned the 2008 economic collapse and the kind of um, essentially a return back to the way things were before in terms of concentrations of wealth in terms of bailouts of companies and um, you know, what are the central questions that people should be asking about a post pandemic future that is much more equitable, and how it should be structured, nationally and internationally. Clearly, you know, here in Canada, we have a government that's found $100 billion to reinvest in the system. And of course, when the other foot drops, it's usually an austerity lens that gets placed on and it lands down in each country differently, but what um oftentimes, a lot of people aren't in the back room and as part of the decision making and policymaking that's happening. And so what are the questions that people ought to be asking right now?

Paul Rogers  22:34  
Well, just one thing you raised 2008/2009. Of course, the interesting thing about that is although it did not impact on the coming of austerity in many countries, some action was taken immediately as a result of international leadership, although it tends to be forgotten. An interesting combination of a rather older, experienced politician, Gordon Brown in Britain and Barack Obama who'd just been elected, were the key people at the so-called summit, um, the Iron Dog Summit, the summit held in East London in 2010. In which Brown managed to get significant world leaders together, and almost knock heads together, whatever you think of Brown, and many people really criticize him in other ways, in that particular area, he came up trumps. And essentially, I think that is something we need now. But to be more specific as to your question. Again, it's a massive one. I mean, in many ways, I think we've got to take a very hard look at the way in which um economic systems have developed. And this does take us back to critiquing neoliberalism. And essentially, we have to look at the way in which more and more control has seeped away from government into major corporations. And that is happening even more at the present time, because some of them are really hugely increasing their power in the middle of this crisis. And essentially, the way in which power is concentrated away from governments in some way that has got to be sort of restrained back into the power of governments working together. Now how we do that's another matter, but essentially, that has to happen. There's one thing which has happened, I can't speak for other countries, but in Britain, whatever you think of the recent leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, and his castigated across the press and in the right wing media, particularly Corbin did actually achieve in Britain, something rather unusual. He gave austerity a bad name. The old idea was there is no alternative to austerity, and that was extended until about four or five years ago and in fact, labor under Corbyn, knocked that on the head in Britain. So it's quite possible that if we find the removes to cut public spending, and really make sure that those cuts hit the poorer people, I think you'll get a much stronger reaction against that in Britain now. I can't speak for other countries, but it's going to depend very much on whether people actually say, it is ideological to go for austerity now, there are other means of handling this and in many ways this very strong argument that we're going to need a lot of economic redevelopment. Though so what you do is build lean green economic machines. Essentially ones which are far more geared to the kind of world which we're all going to have to live with in the next 10 to 20 years, it's going to be a world which has to be sustainable, and has to change its ways. And this goes way beyond the COVID problem. So here again, I think there's a huge amount to gain but it's going to require a great deal of leadership, some critical radical thought, and a lot of support coming from ordinary people.

Am Johal  25:36 
It's astounding, just seeing in the context of COVID-19, how quickly the world can change and public policies can change when emerging threats appear. And you made the link between um, looking at the problem of COVID-19 it, it pales in comparison to the larger problem of climate change. We rarely talk about flattening the curve of co2 emissions, and other things that government needs to be doing. And partly it has something to do with the duration of the crisis, how it lands down, the immediacy. We certainly see the impact of wildfires. Australia and California will become a regular feature in the normalization of everyday life. But how, what can um the COVID-19 crisis point away towards how we might at a global level be addressing climate change?

Paul Rogers  26:25  
I think the most important thing is as you, you put your finger on it, governments made incredible changes in policy almost overnight, a month or so ago, I mean, quite staggering. And the thing is, if they can do that, to claim they can't do for something else, is that utter rubbish. So in some ways, it exposes the weakness of the argument that this is too big a problem when it comes to climate breakdown, you know, it leads to all sorts of issues. You know, we're facing up to this, which has required very quick action. Now, admittedly, to come up to the issue of climate breakdown, we've got to take increasing action over several years, and it's going to cost a lot in the short term. And that cost has to be shared much more equitably. And where you look at the sheer levels of wealth we have in the world, one knows where a fair bit of it has to come from. But essentially, I think where we're at now, is that the kind of experience we've had very recently shows what can be achieved, and that whole change of attitudes can be transferred to the bigger but slightly longer term problem. I mean, the action on climate change has to be taken rapidly over the next three to six years. That's the sort of thing. Whereas on COVID, it has to be taken in the space of two or three weeks, but if it can be taken in that level it can surely be taken in the bigger one. As to what that means, well, you do have to have rapid decarbonisation is at the root of this, I mean, essentially, we should be decarbonizing at the rate of 8% per year between now and 2030. That is sort of reverse compound interest, it would bring us down to maybe 35-40% of the current levels of carbon emissions. I can't give you the exact figures, but it's something of that order. It will be really very radical to take us down towards zero carbon. That has to be the global average. So it has to be even faster in the industrialized, the older, industrialized world of the global north. But that is the level that we have to come to terms with. But at the same time, it's massive. It's, in many ways, everything does have to change and we have to realize this, and it's going to be very demanding. But the point is there isn't actually any alternative to that, just as the situation we're facing now, in these current weeks and months, there isn't an alternative to radical action. So here again, I think this may be the model for something bigger, but I wouldn't begin to pretend that it's going to be easy but unless we do it, then COVID-19 will seem to be a walk in the park compared to what we would face.

Am Johal  28:58 
Paul, anything that you'd like to add?

Paul Rogers  29:02  
I suppose you know, we're looking at extremely difficult issues and it is very easy to get pessimistic. In my own career, I spent the best part of 15 years working on nuclear issues and the possible effects of a nuclear war. I moved from there to working primarily on political violence although, I have this long term interest in changing causes of conflict. Now, if you work for 40 years, on things like nuclear war and terrorism, you come up really with only three possible life choices: one is alcoholism, another suicide and another is optimism and I still retain a lot of optimism because change can happen incredibly quickly. You look at the, the demobilization after the Second World War. You're look in some ways that the response to the 74th food crisis and many other examples. The huge things can change for the better when there is sufficient collective realization that it is necessary and maybe in the back of my mind, our minds there's no alternative. So in spite of the issues we're talking about, which are really pretty tough to take, I think there is cause for optimism, I have no doubt people won't come through it. Whether we can do it with the minimum of harm to the most vulnerable, will be a real sign of whether we're actually developing a stronger sense of humanity.

Am Johal  30:19  
Paul Rogers, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Paul Rogers  30:24
Thank you.


Paige Smith  30:30  
Thanks for listening to this conversation between Paul Rogers and Am Johal. Stay tuned for the next episode from our Below the Radar conversation series.


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
May 05, 2020

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