Since the onset of winter, the rampaging coronavirus has seemed unstoppable. Yet, compared to the Spanish flu of 100 years ago, the number of COVID-19 victims is small. More than 50 million people died from the Spanish flu out of a world population of about 2 billion at that time — that’s 2.5% of the total. In contrast, the current world population is about 8 billion. The percentage of deaths is only 0.02%. The gap between the two figures is immense.
Why this gap? The World Health Organization’s legally binding International Health Regulations, revised in 2005, state that in the event of a potential pandemic event, member countries must assess the risk to public health and then notify the WHO within 24 hours. Upon receipt of the information, an emergency committee session at the WHO will deliberate the matter and then provide the necessary information to member countries. COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the organization on March 11.
For his part, however, U.S. President Donald Trump has criticized the WHO for allegedly holding a pro-China stance, and on July 6, he formally notified the United Nations that the United States was withdrawing its support, which attracted worldwide attention. There’s suspicion that President Trump, with his words and actions, was attempting to shift blame for his mismanagement of the U.S. COVID-19 response, having been accused of not taking the disaster seriously enough.
What does the world think of the WHO’s work on the coronavirus pandemic? According to a summer 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, the number of people who felt favorably about the WHO’s response (the total of those who responded “very good” or “somewhat good”) in the United States was 53% (versus 44% who responded “somewhat bad” or “very bad”). Other countries also showed generally positive attitudes: Germany 66% positive versus 30% negative, United Kingdom 64% versus 34%, France 62% versus 36%, Italy 54% versus 45% and Canada 67% versus 31%. Japan is an outlier, however, with 24% viewing the WHO response favorably versus 67% negative.
One one hand, considering the state of media coverage in Japan, it is hard to believe that the average Japanese person is familiar with the workings of the U.N.’s health body since local media rarely report on the WHO and its workings. On the other hand, the Japanese media enthusiastically report on President Trump’s words and actions without fact-checking them. So we can assume that these numbers were influenced by Trump’s comments and a general distrust of China among the Japanese population. In any case, this low level of awareness of international cooperation and international organizations should be considered a sign of immaturity in Japanese society. Even in the United States, where President Trump has been verbally abusive, 53% of citizens appreciate the work of the WHO. Japan’s low 24% approval figure is, no matter how you look at it, extraordinary.
A similar poll conducted by Pew Research on the U.N. itself found that 62% of people in the United States held a favorable view of the global body with 31% responding unfavorably. In Germany, those numbers came in at 61% favorable versus 34% unfavorable; in the U.K. it was 70% versus 25%; in France it was 60% versus 34%; in Italy it came in at 63% versus 36%; while in Canada, 68% responded favorably versus 27%. But in Japan, the numbers were the opposite of other major developed countries with only 29% expressing a positive view while the majority, 55%, responded unfavorably.
Again, these figures are extraordinary. Looking at the data, it seems as if Japan is on the path to national isolation rather than international cooperation. This is not dissimilar to the path it took before World War II. However, the nation was a military power at that time, so in that respect, the situation was quite different from that of Japan today. Still, the country does not possess adequate natural resources, such as fossil fuels, iron ore and rubber — the three elements of the industrial revolution that underpin the comfortable lifestyles we enjoy in this day and age.
If the nation wants to maintain its current standard of living, it has no choice but to maintain a course that embraces international cooperation. Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), where I work, is a relatively young university that opened in Kyushu in 2000. APU is one of the most internationalized universities in the nation, with three international accreditations (AACSB, AMBA and TedQual), and it encourages its graduates to work in the world at large, with 28 of the 38 alumni chapters located overseas. More than 25 graduates are already working for the United Nations and U.N.-related international organizations.
This summer, we signed a cooperation agreement with Kyushu University, a national university, to jointly train students at both universities who wish to work in international organizations. Although this is but one small initiative, I would like to put all my effort into strengthening the flow of international cooperation.
Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 40 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.
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