Since China reported the novel coronavirus to the World Health Organization (WHO) three months ago, international cooperation has been slow. Rather than work together to defeat a shared threat, countries are taking unilateral steps to shield themselves and protect their own citizens’ health and welfare.
The WHO declared the outbreak an international public health emergency on Jan. 30, raised its global risk assessment to “very high” on Feb. 28, and labeled the outbreak a “pandemic” on March 11. That is a snail’s pace response to what was obviously a serious and aggressive pathogen.
Even more slow to respond were the G7 and the UN. They are trying to launch international initiatives, but their infighting, bickering and discord only underscore just how divided and unprepared the world remains as it confronts the greatest threat to global public health in over a century.
The UN response, finally coming together, is to be run by the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs, and aimed at 51 vulnerable countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Money will support the relief operations of nine UN agencies and their nongovernmental partners, as they seek to deliver essential testing kits and medical supplies, craft public information campaigns to reduce infection, protect at-risk refugees and internally displaced persons, and create “air bridges and hubs” to get relief workers and supplies where they are needed.
The G20’s first-ever videoconference summit, organized by Saudi Arabia, was successful in terms of process. G20 members pledged to do “whatever it takes” to minimize the social and economic fallout from the pandemic, and offered reassuring language about the need for multilateral cooperation. The G20 governments agreed to “strengthen global safety nets” but it is not clear where the effort will go next. The Gulf states are moving forward with impressive COVID-19 eradication campaigns. International organizations and other countries need to examine these case studies for best practice.
The UN General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution recognizing “the unprecedented effects” of the coronavirus pandemic and calling for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the COVID-19 disease. The assembly did not approve a rival resolution sponsored by Russia calling for UN solidarity in the face of the challenges posed by the virus and urging an end to trade wars, protectionist practices and unilateral sanctions without UN Security Council approval. The EU, UK, US and Ukraine objected to the Russian draft, which was co-sponsored by Central African Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. This ideological fighting does not cure disease.
An agreement called for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to lead the mobilization and coordination of a global response to the pandemic “and its adverse social, economic and financial impact on all societies.” The language is important: The resolution recognizes COVID-19’s “severe disruption to societies and economies, as well as to global travel and commerce, and the devastating impact on the livelihood of people,” and stresses that “the poorest and most vulnerable are the hardest hit” and must be helped. The international community is having a difficult time organizing, because of varying degrees of medical capacity and simply because of the scale of the pandemic.
Finally, in war-torn countries, COVID-19 represents an even more serious threat to life. Health systems have already been ravaged by violence, and the threat of further strain on health care from the coronavirus is an enormous risk. The pathogen is hitting hard in the most difficult places, and the most vulnerable people. Governments, rightly, must protect their own citizens and societies, but they must also look after people in places of detention and displacement camps.
International aid organizations are focusing on conflict zones in a multidisciplinary manner: Water and sanitation teams work to increase access to clean water in dozens of areas affected by crises, including prisons. Soap is included in the assistance packages given to families fleeing violence. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, international health agencies are developing emergency plans to ensure continuity in the most critical hospitals around the globe. This means increasing stocks of essential medical supplies and putting in place or reinforcing contingency plans and infection prevention and control measures in hospitals that are highly dependent on international healthcare mobility and support.
Overall, the international community is trying its best to give organizations assistance, but the usual issues are getting in the way —politics and public relations. Let us hope that states and international organizations can learn to act in a managed manner at this time of significant global change.