With COVID-19 infections now evident in 176 countries, the pandemic is the most significant threat to humanity since the second world war. Then, as now, confidence in international cooperation and institutions plumbed new lows.
Even as we attend to the countless emergencies generated by COVID-19, we need to think deeply about why the international community was so unprepared for an outbreak that was so inevitable. This is hardly the first time we’ve faced global catastrophes.
The second world war reflected the catastrophic failure of leaders to learn the lessons of the 1914-1918 war. The creation of the United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions in the late 1940s and early 1950s provided some grounds for optimism, but these were overshadowed by the Cold War. Moreover, the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions of the 1980s rolled back the capacity of governments to address inequality through taxation and redistribution and governments’ ability to deliver health and essential services.
The capacity of international institutions to regulate globalisation was undermined precisely at a time when they were most needed. The 1980s, 1990s and 2000s were a period of rapidly rising cross-border movements of trade, finance and people. The accelerated flow of goods, services and skills is one of the principal reasons for the most rapid reduction of global poverty in history. Since the late 1990s, more than 2 billion people have climbed out of extreme poverty. Improved access to employment, nutrition, sanitation and public health, including vaccine availability, added over a decade in average life expectancy to the world’s population.
But international institutions failed to manage the downside risks generated by globalisation.
Far from empowering the United Nations, the world is governed by divided nations, who prefer to go it alone, starving the institutions designed to safeguard our future of the necessary resources and authority. The WHO shareholders, not its personnel, have failed dismally to ensure it can exercise its vital mandate to protect global health.
Coalition of the willing must lead global response to Pandemic
Now more than ever, we need a comprehensive global response. The Group of Seven and G20 leading economies appear rudderless under their current leadership. While promising to ensure attention to the poorest countries and to refugees, their recent virtual meeting offered too little too late. But this cannot be allowed to stop others acting to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. In partnership with G20 nations, a creative coalition of willing countries should take urgent steps to restore confidence not just in the markets but in global institutions.
The European Union, China and other nations will have to step up and lead a global effort, dragging the US into a global response which includes accelerating vaccine trials and ensuring free distribution once a vaccine and antivirals are found. Governments around the world will also need to take dramatic action toward massive investments in health, sanitation and basic income.
Eventually, we will get over this crisis. But too many people will have died, the economy will be severely scarred, and the threat of pandemics will remain. The priority then must be not only recovery, but also establishing a robust multilateral mechanism for ensuring that a similar or even worse pandemic never again arises.
There is no wall high enough that will keep out the next pandemic, or indeed any of the other great threats to our future. But what these high walls will keep out is the technologies, people, finance and most of all the collective ideas and will to cooperate that we need to address pandemics, climate change, antibiotic resistance, terror and other global threats.
The world Before Coronavirus and After Coronavirus cannot be the same. We must avoid the mistakes made throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries by undertaking fundamental reforms to ensure that we never again face the threat of pandemics.
If we can work together within our countries to prioritise the needs of all our citizens, and internationally to overcome the divides that have allowed the threats of pandemics to fester, out of the terrible fire of this pandemic a new world order could be forged. By learning to cooperate we would not only have learnt to stop the next pandemic, but also to address climate change and other critical threats.
Now is the time to start building the necessary bridges at home and abroad.