On 4 May, more than 50 world leaders, heads of international organisations and companies followed an invitation from the European Union to come together to fight a double-headed virus; corona and selfish nationalism. Together, they pledged to invest 7.4 billion euros – more than 11.13 trillion kyats – for testing, treatment and most importantly: a vaccine.
The COVID-19 virus does not stop at national borders. Our response to this pandemic can therefore not be isolation – while we distance ourselves physically from each other to help prevent the further spread of the virus, we need to move closer together as nations to effectively fight it. A truly global approach means that once the vaccine is developed, access will be given to everybody, not just the highest bidders. We need to prepare now, together, to have sufficient production capacity for the vaccine to be deployed to every corner of the world. In fact, countries like Myanmar, with limited testing capability or local pharmaceutical industry, should be among the first to receive the vaccine.
COVID-19 has affected all of us, taken lives and jobs, separated us from our loved ones, confined us in our homes, turning our world upside down. There are legitimate questions as to whether the Chinese authorities could have been more transparent instead of silencing Wuhan doctors, who raised their concerns. But now is not the time to make vague allegations, nor to stigmatise any race or nationality with finger-pointing, discrimination, disinformation or conspiracy theories. We need global scientific cooperation, not politics, to lead the way, to focus on finding the source of the coronavirus so we can effectively fight it and get back to a normal life as soon as possible. At the World Health Organisation’s annual World Health Assembly on 18 May, the European Union will propose an independent investigation to find the source of this pandemic.
The coronavirus has hit Europe hard. So far, health authorities reported almost 1.5 million confirmed infections and 145,000 deaths linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of Europeans have spent weeks inside their homes, and many schools remain closed. Like in Myanmar, millions of Europeans have lost their income, jobs and livelihoods as the streets all over Europe fell silent. Europe has taken a hard blow, but we are still standing, and the European spirit of solidarity – within Europe and with our partners around the globe – has been mobilised.
Let me pay tribute to the Myanmar government for taking up the fight against the coronavirus with admirable calm and professionalism – despite limited resources and a lack of key medical supplies, in particular in remote areas. The low number of confirmed infections in Myanmar is probably partly due to the low number of testing, but overall, Myanmar has done better than several developed nations with vast resources.
These strict measures, however, come at a price, and the socio-economic impact on Myanmar’s people and economy is very harsh. Growth this year will be halved, or worse. The European Union stands in solidarity with Myanmar, and we have shown that in a number of practical ways, using our many programmes across the country to help government inform people how to help fight the spread of the virus and how to stay healthy and safe. Our projects also provide essential hygiene and personal protective equipment to communities, officials and health workers across the country.
A special effort is made to ensure that humanitarian aid continues to reach the most vulnerable, including IDPs and people affected by conflict. As government revenues decline during this crisis, we have accelerated our disbursements to the Ministry of Education to keep education on track. The National Health Laboratory, a pivotal part of Myanmar’s COVID-19 response, is already receiving strong joint support from the European Union and the French Development Agency, to increase its capacities to test and boost its preparedness for this and the next epidemic.
To me and to the EU, supporting the women in the garment sector is a special, top priority. Tens of thousands of jobs have already been lost, and many more are at risk. First due to the disruption of raw material supply from China, then cancelled orders from global buyers and now factory closures under quarantine. These women did nothing to deserve this misery. Most of them are young women from across Myanmar who, with their salaries, support their children and families back home. Half a million jobs have been created thanks to the EU’s market opening under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences, and this success story must be preserved. Now that the crisis hit, I am glad that the EU could respond quickly to the dramatic situation with a “Myan Ku” Emergency Cash Fund that is set to disburse cash to up to 90,000 workers, helping them through this crisis.
The world will overcome COVID-19. The closer we cooperate, the faster we’ll put it behind us. But will we learn from it? Our ambition should not be to return to “normal”. This is a wake-up call to the world with several messages: First, we cannot afford to weaken or politicise key international institutions like the WHO or the UN as a whole. Second, if and when the zoonotic (viral transmission from animal to human) origin of COVID-19 is confirmed, it must lead us to take strong, collective action to ban all wildlife trafficking, including in Myanmar’s border areas with the current Chinese market. Bats and pangolins belong in nature, not on the dinner table.
Third, a virus is not “nature’s revenge” – we did this to ourselves, and we should think deep and hard about our respect for planetary boundaries. We need a leap forward into a modern, clean, and sustainable economy which uses resources responsibly and protects the world’s biodiversity. Our new normal must be a green normal, where we do not compromise on decisive measures against climate change, protecting our future livelihoods and our planet.
Fourth, global trade and transport is not to blame for this – but the pandemic reminds us that global norms and standards are there for a reason and must be upheld.
And fifth, while this crisis has disproportionally hit the poor and the vulnerable, it has also exposed our interdependence and that no society is stronger than its weakest link. We need societies with safety nets, not as an emergency measure, but as a permanent feature, and we need it for the international community.
On 9 May, the EU marks Europe Day and the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration. In 1950, former French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman in a powerful speech laid out his vision of a peaceful, prosperous Europe that is built on such unity and solidarity. In the face of the coronavirus crisis, his words ring truer than ever: We are stronger together.