Coordinated national and global responses needed to beat Covid-19

Black swan events produce big but unforeseen consequences. Was Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison right, even prescient, in his speech at the Lowy Institute on 3 October 2019? It’s hard to think of a better example of ‘negative globalism’ than the novel coronavirus that originated in the wet markets of Wuhan: it has circled the globe with astonishing speed, is still spreading and threatens to kill people in huge numbers and lay waste to major economies. The pathogen has insinuated itself into the interstices of global commerce and people movements through multi-country supply-cum-manufacturing chains, labour flows and tourism networks.

Clearly, a pandemic isn’t quite what Morrison had in mind, but rather international institutional arrangements. From that perspective, the current crisis, like the fires that blazed across eastern Australia last summer, reaffirms the importance of looking for solutions without passports to problems without passports.

The available data’s patchy, and the choice between watchful mitigation (Sweden) versus drastic suppression (UK, US) strategies is somewhat contested, but the media has been flooded with predictions that the pandemic will kill globalism. The Australian’s Greg Sheridan colourfully describes Covid-19 as ‘the hunter-killer enemy of globalisation’, arguing that the pandemic will strengthen the power of national governments at the expense of international institutions.

The death of globalisation and global institutions is much exaggerated. A universal pulling up of drawbridges behind national moats would do collective self-harm. The positing of national sovereignty and UN-centric multilateralism as alternatives is a false dichotomy. We need both strong state capacity, not power, at the national level and efficient and effective multilateralism for coordinating responses at the global level.

The appropriate state–global relationship is social distancing and mitigation policies nationally and functional collaboration across the geopolitical fault lines globally. Governments in thrall to neoliberal orthodoxy have hollowed out both state capacity and international institutions. The crisis Covid-19 brings home the urgent need to recast states as the locus of public goods and to empower international institutions to underpin a healthy global multilateral order as sites for facilitating cooperation and muting conflict.

Conversely, any intensification of aggressively nationalist, anti-globalist sentiments would pave the way for widely damaging economic and trade deglobalisation. US President Donald Trump’s strategy of decoupling from China, bringing companies home and rebuilding national manufacturing capacity may well be emulated by many countries that are now more willing to accept higher costs and less efficiency after Covid-19 exposed their vulnerabilities. Comparative advantage is all very well in good times, but single supply lines leave populations exposed when the bad times roll.

However, the crisis is a sharp reminder of the limits of unilateralism in an age of shared threats and fragility but unequal resilience. National adequacy measures must be supplemented by building international functional redundancy into food, health and value chains in a deliberate strategy of ‘risk reduction through diversification’. It’s in all countries’ self-interest to recreate a healthy rules-based international order that breaks down barriers to the free flow of medical supplies. ‘Solidarity is the new selfish’ because of this, writes Federica Mogherini, the former EU high representative for foreign affairs.

Trump’s disruption of the global trading order has made it correspondingly more difficult to organise a coordinated response to the pandemic or for the US to provide the requisite world leadership. The rushed retreat into ‘America first’ responses, like when Trump tried to buy exclusive access to vaccines produced in Germany, has forcefully demonstrated the consequences of the crumbling architecture of the global order. In a policy aptly described as ‘sicken thy neighbour’, 24 countries imposed restrictions, including outright bans in some cases, on exports of critical medical supplies such as masks, medicines, ventilators and disinfectants.

If every crisis is an opportunity, then this one should help to reboot the ethic of global cooperation. Tackling a pandemic requires cross-border good governance; robust surveillance to detect, test, isolate and treat every serious case; an unimpeded flow of medical equipment and supplies from manufacturers to affected countries; real-time intelligence sharing and exchanges of best practices; and an impartial, technically competent and publicly credible international organisation to establish universal health norms.

An efficient architecture of global health governance would have detected the emerging epidemiological threat early, sounded the alarm and coordinated the delivery of essential equipment and medicines to population clusters in the most need.

Measured against those benchmarks, the performance of the World Health Organization has been underwhelming. Its initial tardiness, and its indulgence of China’s official line and continuing ostracism of Taiwan, will dent its credibility and legitimacy as the world’s first line of defence against pandemics.

As the Trump administration receded still further from UN engagement, China put its nationals at the head of four of the UN’s 15 specialised agencies; the other permanent Security Council members, including the US, have just one each. Specialised agencies acting as technical watchdogs have been weakened by politicisation, donor capture and timid leadership. Member states, not the organisations themselves, are to blame for this pathology.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for global circuit-breakers to identify, isolate and quarantine systemic risks early. The Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data, a public–private partnership that includes the governments of Germany, Singapore and the US, might be a good forerunner of collaborative efforts to exchange information and share best practices. A group of Chinese researchers published the genetic sequence of the new virus online through the initiative in December.

When the 1987 Brundtland commission report said, ‘The Earth is one but the world is not’, hardcore realists dismissed that as a romantic notion. Yet the serial crises of the past few decades, from natural disasters to pandemics, from financial meltdowns to terrorism, remind us that no nation can be an island, sufficient unto itself, in the modern world.