Mpumelelo Mkhabela

Mpumelelo Mkhabela: When any country sneezes now, the world can catch a cold

2020-04-02 13:55
Algerian paramedics wearing protective outfits are pictured in front of El-Kettar hospital's special unit to treat cases of novel coronavirus in the capital Algiers on 26 February 2020.

Algerian paramedics wearing protective outfits are pictured in front of El-Kettar hospital's special unit to treat cases of novel coronavirus in the capital Algiers on 26 February 2020. (Ryad Kramdi, AFP)

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The post Covid-19 world order must appreciate that the new reality is that "when any country sneezes, the whole world can catch a cold," writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.


There was a time when the adage, "when America sneezes the world catches a cold", held true with little or no caveats.

It still holds true to a large extent. 

But what has changed is that the US no longer holds the monopoly of a contagious sneeze. Of course, in its application to the US, it had nothing to with actual flu or coronaviruses. 

It was about the power of America as an influential global power in almost all important respects - innovation, military, economy, democracy and popular culture.

In short, the US commanded global influence without much contest in hard power and soft power. 

The "sneeze" adage was originally conceived by a Prussian diplomat in the Napoleonic era.

At the time, France was considered the leading nation of Europe.

Hence the original phrase: "when France sneezes, the whole of Europe catches a cold."

Back then, it had hard power or militaristic significance as Europe was a backyard of seemingly endless wars. 

At the height of American power, the phrase was understandably applicable to the US and its massive influence in world affairs.

This after Britain, which once held sway in world affairs as the centre of the industrial revolution, naval power, manager of a sprawling empire and a financial hub, had waned.

In fact, there was long period in history when the "sneeze" adage was befittingly British.

The most recent manifestation of "when America sneezes, the world catches a cold" was the 2008 global financial crisis.

What sneezed then were American banks. 

The state had failed to regulate the banks adequately.

In his memoir Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises, Timothy Geithner, US Treasury Secretary under President Barack Obama stated: "For decades, the US government had allowed the financial system to outgrow and outflank its regulatory system."

The consequence was the creation by bankers of so-called toxic assets which were then sold to other financial institutions. So toxic and contagious, the financial disease spread to the integrated global financial system. 

Many banks around the world caught the cold and collapsed. America's global investment bank Lehman Brothers did not survive. Some were cured. 

The impact did not end with the collapse of financial institutions.

Even countries like South Africa whose banks were adequately regulated and shielded from direct attack of the American financial cold, felt the impact of negative investor confidence.

There was a decline of trust in the global financial systems, leading to decline in investment flows. Ultimately, there was the Great Recession.

The financial disease had American roots but its cure, like its impact, was both American and global. 

Covid-19 is a reminder both metaphorically and in reality that the US is no longer a monopoly in global influence. This time, it would be safe to say that "when China sneezes the world catches a cold". 

We are caught in that world tragedy.

Available information suggests the source of coronavirus in China, like the America-triggered financial crisis, was poor regulatory enforcement of food, health and safety standards by the Chinese government. 

But as a metaphor, the Chinese sneeze and its impact on the world had long been in existence, since China became the second largest economy after the US.

As the largest importer of commodities and as a global manufacturing plant, China's demand has influenced global prices and the growth of other countries.

Covid-19 has proven the global influence of China if ever there was doubt about it. 

Not only China. The global impact of Covid-19 would more likely have been the same regardless of the source country.

To stem its tide and future contagious calamities would require full appreciation of global inter-connectedness and re-appreciation of human solidarity.

 It is, therefore, heartening to see Germany airlifting critically ill patients from France and Italy to cure them at its high care facilities.

Germany was also responsible for providing leadership during the European debt crisis and the asylum debacle that sparked anti-immigration sentiments among European conservatives. 

A lesson from Germany is that, the state must be very organised in its domestic affairs - economically and otherwise - to be able to withstand crises and to underwrite assistance to others in need. 

The global award for human solidarity, if ever there was one, would go to Cuba.

The poor island has suffered tremendously under nonsensical American sanctions, but it wouldn't lie idle while people were dying in Italy. 

South Africans have long known the extraordinary big hearts of the Cubans. The dropping of sanctions against Cuba and its integration into the world economy is long overdue. 

The US would do well to renew Obama's Cuban diplomatic initiative and also revisit senseless sanctions imposed against Iran. 

The post Covid-19 world order must appreciate that the sneeze adage has to change to reflect the new reality. The new reality is that "when any country sneezes, the whole world can catch a cold".

Literally. 

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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Read more on:    us  |  china  |  pandemic  |  coronavirus
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