COVID-19: Calls for Change 

“A MUCH STRONGER GLOBAL MECHANISM”

31 March 2020

By Colin James

This article first appeared on the New Zealand Centre for Global Studies website

On 26 March, as COVID-19 was pushing countries into defensive lockdown, former Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, called for a ‘much stronger global mechanism’ than the World Health Organisation to deal with future pandemics.

Writing for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Bildt noted that WHO had declared health emergencies six times in the past decade. He added that the global threats from SARS in 2003, MERS in 2012 and Ebola in 2014-15 were "just three examples of outbreaks that required a sustained multilateral response".

Yet COVID-19 is being responded to nation-by-nation.

What to do?

The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) still rules our global (dis)order: nation-states' sovereignty is exclusive, even when the action, or lack of it, threatens others.

China's failure – as with SARS – to respond adequately to the initial outbreak ensured the spread, first to Italy, which by late March had the highest number of deaths (if China's recently improving figures are to be believed).

Then note the bumbling initial responses of the Trump and Johnson administrations in the dis-United States and dis-United Kingdom. How are other nations to keep safe if the big ones shamble?

Bildt offered a view:

“A new global institution ... would need to have the authority and the means to intervene as intrusively as necessary to stop a contagious outbreak in its tracks".

Bildt acknowledged that delivering such powers to a supranational institution would ‘not be politically easy’.

In fact, if you believe Kurt Campbell (Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Asia), it is close to politically impossible in the present fractured geopolitical climate. Campbell detailed, in a Foreign Affairs article in March, China's manoeuvres since it took COVID-19 seriously to present the Middle Kingdom as world leader of the fight against the virus: internal lockdowns, propaganda and much publicised material assistance to Italy, Iran, Serbia and Africa. It is a major producer of masks, respirators, ventilators and medicine.  

Just six years ago, it was the US that led the response to Ebola. Now, Trump trumpets national self-interest. It has, with China, dismembered the WTO’s appeal body, and pulled out of the Paris Accord on climate change.

Campbell does muse on how China and the US could conceivably cooperate for the global good.  But the bilateral standoff under Xi Jinping and Trump is not just a contest of Palmerstonian self-interests. It is also a contest of ideas of how a society and polity – including the world – should be ordered.

And that contest is much more complex than a two-counry joust. Put Iran, Japan, Russia, Kenya, Chile, Indonesia and Ecuador in a talk-shop – could they agree on much?

We are global dwellers in this crowded, digitally-tied, water-short, climate challenged and pandemic-threatened world.

But peoples' ways of organising themselves diverge widely. Through history, this has invited conflict more often than congruence.

Also, most major change in human social-political organisation and activity, including policy and resultant collective-action programmes, is reactive, not proactive – whether the polity is monarchical, autocratic (totalitarian) or democratic.

Water shortages and climate events, later in this or early in the next decade, will generate severe public anger in some countries.  Hunger is not a happy state.  The result is a mix of belated, not properly-thought-through and reactive, political and policy responses.

Whether those outbusts fragment the international system or promote (desperate?) cooperation can be known only at the time. 

Meanwhile, there is a potential bottom-up path to that cooperation: coalitions of the willing, whether by nation-states or cities or civil society bodies or a combination of those.

MFAT's Vangelis Vitalis has been active in the assembly of two small such coalitions.

  • One is on climate-change-related environmental taxes and tariff concessions.
  • The other, just assembled, has agreed on zero tariffs on items needed to fight the pandemic.

That is a sort of bottom-up partial globalism which just might over time catch on, and generate a form of functional globalism. Nation-states work well only if there is bottom-up agreement that those within its boundaries feel their decisions, both national and international, are legitimate.

If such coalitions emerge, solidify and expand their memberships, the human species might, just possibly, conceivably (note the qualifiers) develop over time a response to issues of the global commons to save us from the worst.

The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

Yet we humans have got through multiple crises and downturns on smaller scales over millennia (though often with a lot of pain and inhumanity).

So the triggers for action may come early enough to produce enough reactions to save us from catastrophe.

Europe's terrible plagues drove it to develop in ways that eventually gave it the means to generate widespread material prosperity and global dominance.

Those who look for silver linings might see a tiny glimmer in COVID-19.

Colin James has recently retired from a lifetime of political journalism in New Zealand, including the Parliamentary Press Gallery. He is a Senior Associate in VUW’s Institute for Global & Policy Studies.