COOPERATION IS THE KEY
Leaders have two responsibilities in any crisis – solve the immediate problem and stop it from happening again. Now that the world is slowly getting on top of COVID-19, we must look to the longer term and work out how to avoid a future global health emergency.
The world was caught flat-footed by the coronavirus and medical experts fear that if we don’t learn from our mistakes, the next pandemic will be a matter of when, not if. No one can guarantee a pandemic-free world as infectious diseases are a fact of life, but we can do better at minimising the impact on public health.
Stopping future epidemics morphing into pandemics will require unprecedented globally coordinated action. It is only through international cooperation – and not through nationalist rhetoric and policies – that governments will be able to protect citizens, according to the World Economic Forum. In mid-April, the Forum issued a report which stated:
The world that emerges from the coronavirus pandemic may be a warring collection of countries that are more closed off and nationalistic than before. But without rapid and effective global cooperation, the world may not exit this crisis safely at all. For now at least, heavy-handed nationalist responses predominate. Alongside curfews, lockdowns, and requisitioning, governments are closing borders and using wartime rhetoric to rally their populations. … Soon, however, governments will need to restart the global economy. And that will require international cooperation.
Many believe that COVID-19 is a creature of capitalist globalisation and that the only way to prevent further outbreaks is to build walls, restrict travel and decrease trade – in other words, to de-globalise the world. However, historian and author, Professor Yuval Noah Harari, maintains that the coronavirus crisis is a human failure caused by our inability to cooperate.
In a TIME article on 15 March, Professor Harari wrote:
… while short-term quarantine is essential to stop epidemics, long-term isolationism will lead to economic collapse without offering any real protection against infectious diseases. Just the opposite. The real antidote to epidemic is not segregation, but rather cooperation.
Professor Harari notes that epidemics killed millions of people long before the current age of globalisation. He cites the Black Plague which killed between 75-200 million people even though there was no intercontinental travel or megacities in the 14th century to fuel the spread of the disease.
Over the centuries, humanity has become better at combating diseases with both the incidence and impact of epidemics actually going down dramatically. In the words of Professor Harari:
Despite horrendous outbreaks such as AIDS and Ebola, in the twenty-first century epidemics kill a far smaller proportion of humans than in any previous time since the Stone Age. This is because the best defense humans have against pathogens is not isolation – it is information. Humanity has been winning the war against epidemics because in the arms race between pathogens and doctors, pathogens rely on blind mutations while doctors rely on the scientific analysis of information.
Professor Harari asserts that history teaches us two lessons for the current epidemic. Firstly, you cannot protect yourself by permanently closing your borders. And secondly, real protection comes from the sharing of reliable scientific data and from global solidarity. Professor Harari continues:
When one country is struck by an epidemic, it should be willing to honestly share information about the outbreak without fear of economic catastrophe – while other countries should be able to trust that information, and should be willing to extend a helping hand rather than ostracize the victim.
When politicians squabble, viruses double which is why the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has added its voice to those calling for greater cooperation. In the concluding remarks to a report titled “Humanity needs leadership and solidarity to defeat the coronavirus”, the UNDP is clear:
We must rebuild trust and cooperation, within and among nations, and between people and their governments.
Following the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, there was swift and decisive action by the G20 in leading a coordinated global response. In stark contrast, there has been a lack of effective international action regarding COVID-19.
Predictably, governments have been working to protect their own populations first by closing borders and imposing quarantines and lockdowns. “But in doing so,” warns Erik Berglöf, Director of the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “they are often failing to see the bigger picture. That critical error of judgment, if not corrected, will come back to haunt us all”.
Berglöf explains that containing a pandemic requires strengthening the weakest links – in an individual hospital, a local community, a country, or the world. “That is why it is in everyone’s interest urgently to shore up weak health-care systems”, he implores.
Commenting on the inward-looking focus of most governments, economics professor, Lee Jong-Wha of Korea University, stated in an opinion piece on 25 March that:
Unilateral travel bans should be eschewed in favor of cooperative responses, including information-sharing and coordination in the development and delivery of vaccines and treatments. Public-health systems must be protected. Cooperation is in everyone’s interest. Yet, at a time of intensifying nationalism, weak political leadership, and rising political and economic tensions between the world’s two largest economies, effective international action is proving difficult to come by.
Berglöf believes that the G20 needs to listen and work with the World Health Organisation (WHO). He acknowledges the heavy criticism that has been levelled at the WHO but sees this as “misdirected, ill-informed and counterproductive”. He staunchly believes that “the WHO remains the only institution that can provide global health leadership and inspire the trust needed to intervene,” and that “we undermine it at our own risk”.
As outlined in a recent POLITICO article, the coronavirus has brought out the best and worst in world leaders and not everyone has passed the test of character. “Countries may not always get the leader they deserve, but the coronavirus pandemic has certainly revealed what kind of leader they’ve gotten,” said POLITICO.
At the end of the day, governments should be fighting the virus, not each other or the WHO. UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, described the role of the WHO as “absolutely critical” in overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic. World leaders must work together, otherwise history will not judge them kindly.
A classic case of united we stand, divided we fall.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer