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  • Writer's pictureBill Paton

IS A ‘PINK FLAMINGO’ NEXT? Pandemic Politics Are Scarier Than the Virus

“Human history is … marked from time to time by completely avoidable events which I like to call ‘pink flamingos’. Pink flamingos are tragedies caused by nonsensical behaviour, often by a Head of State.”

by William Paton 7 April 2020

International relations during this pandemic are as scary as the virus. While there have been many voices of reason speaking out it is not clear they will prevail. Instead, there is a real risk that continuing silliness by a few may have unforeseen and tragic consequences.

To begin with, Donald Trump tried repeatedly to blame China for the virus. The USA even tried to get the G7 to agree to call it the ‘Wuhan Virus’. As a result, there was no G7 Joint Statement. China too, fell briefly into the trap when a senior official suggested the virus had been brought to Wuhan by USA soldiers during the Military Games held there in October 2019.

It became clear that China had efficiently controlled their epidemic. On the other hand, the USA, UK, Italy, Spain and others had less success, leading to higher numbers of deaths than in China. Boris Johnson led a new attack from his sickbed: China must be lying about the numbers, he said, which must be up to 40 times higher than stated. The ­idea was that if China’s numbers were higher, then the UK’s high numbers would look better. PM Johnson had deliberately delayed social distancing in the UK.

As late as 25 March, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro was still dismissing the pandemic as ‘just a sniffle’ and actively trying to stop social distancing. By April Fool’s Day a prominent USA Senator was clamouring that China must pay compensation to the USA, demanding that China ‘at least’ forgive the USA’s trillion-dollar debt.

In early April, the USA was accused of pirating a shipment of 200,000 masks in transit to the German police. The US company, 3M, that makes the masks was ordered to divert the shipment to the USA. President Trump said: “We need these items immediately for domestic use. We have to have them.” France then also complained that the USA was trying to divert their shipments by offering to pay suppliers triple or quadruple to reroute supplies that they had ordered.

China, by now recovering from the pandemic, has been providing a helping hand, shipping medical supplies to more than 80 countries around the world. This was promptly denounced by a few more American politicians and media figures as a ‘plot to take advantage of the situation’, although it was left unclear exactly how this was supposed to unfairly benefit China. The quality of Chinese medical supplies was disparaged while several Western countries took China’s needed donations but declined to thank China publicly.

Of course, many countries and their leaders have behaved well. Japan and Korea not only managed to control the fast spread of the virus quite efficiently but also maintained good regional cooperation. Italy, Croatia, France and Spain, among others, have cooperated with any other country willing. Under Angela Merkel’s steady leadership, Germany stayed out of the rhetorical exchange and focused on domestic crisis management. Rwanda was the first country in Africa to go into lock down.

Many sensible leaders have also made eloquent calls for international cooperation against this common enemy. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire in the world’s various wars while we fight the virus instead of each other. However, to date there is no real systematic international cooperation against the pandemic and it is not clear that cooler heads will prevail.

Is a ‘Pink Flamingo’ next?

The pandemic is, arguably, a ‘black swan’ event as Nassim Taleb dubbed them in his well-known book. A black swan is a rare and unexpected event with unforeseen consequences. Many would argue that this pandemic is instead one of Michelle Wucker’s ‘grey rhinos’: A grey rhino is a huge known risk that is ignored until it is too late. We knew that another pandemic would come, sooner or later.

Human history is also marked from time to time by completely avoidable events which I like to call ‘pink flamingos’. Pink flamingos are tragedies caused by nonsensical behaviour, often by a Head of State.

The most famous pink flamingo event is probably the ‘Football War’ in 1969. El Salvadorians became enraged over a lost football match and invaded neighbouring Honduras, the winner. Thousands were killed and displaced. In 1925, in ‘The War of the Stray Dog’, Greece invaded Bulgaria after a man was shot to death at the border while chasing his runaway dog.

Japan’s attack on the USA in 1939 can also be counted as a bright pink flamingo. At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour the USA economy was the largest in the world while Japan’s economy was only the world’s seventh largest, nominally less than one tenth the size of the USA’s. How did they expect to win?

George Bush Jr.’s insistence on invading Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction that did not exist was a flaming pink flamingo – a severe delusion that resulted in civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Reasonable people want the world to put their differences aside and come together to combat Covid-19. There is much that we can gain from mutual collaboration. For instance, scarce respirators could be moved from country to country as the pandemic peaks in different places at different times.

But we are not yet starting to cooperate better. Instead, it seems that some governments are continuing to undermine international cooperation, determined to please their domestic audiences. More such folly may yet cause another ‘pink flamingo’ – a second, simultaneous and utterly unprovoked disaster that could be worse than the pandemic itself.

Dr William M. Paton, a Canadian, was leader of the United Nations in Republic of Congo, Tajikistan and Somalia; Director of Country Programmes (worldwide) of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and Deputy Director General of the International Development Law Organization. He now lives in Beijing. Comments are welcome sent to, on WeChat bmpaton or WhatsApp bmpaton.


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