The Covid-19 pandemic should have encouraged unity among governments around the globe; instead, it exacerbated antagonism and selfish responses.
By Humphrey Hawksley*
Crisis often helps to lift the fog of bureaucratic process and shows institutions in their true light. That has been the case with the World Health Organization, the leading arm of the United Nations to fight a global pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the weakness not just of the WHO but other institutions. At first glance, the United Nations along with its World Health Organization takes the lead on Covid-19. Regionally, in Europe, that role falls to the European Union and, nationally, to state governments.
The pandemic should be a straightforward apolitical challenge. Far from exacerbating antagonism within and between governments, the crisis should encourage unity. But the United Nations has allowed itself to become embroiled in superpower rivalry. The European Union has failed to come up with a cohesive regional strategy and, in many countries, questions on how to handle the pandemic have caused divisions.
First, the United Nations.
In a March statement, Secretary General António Guterres described Covid-19 as the world’s gravest test since the UN’s founding. He warned it could lead to an increase in social unrest and violence against which the engagement of the UN Security Council would be critical. “A signal of unity and resolve from the Council would count for a lot at this anxious time,” he said.
Far from taking up Guterres’ advice, the Security Council headed in the opposite direction. Guterres took the step of calling for a resolution on a global ceasefire in the world’s many conflicts to create conditions to deliver aid to those most vulnerable. Over weeks of negotiation, draft resolutions have journeyed through numerous incarnations, but at the time of this writing, none has yet gone to the vote because of US objections.
The blocking point is not a dispute over the ceasefire, but over the World Health Organization as the lead international agency on Covid-19. The United States has accused WHO of being manipulated by China and withholding pandemic information. The two governments cannot agree on how to refer to WHO in the resolution text, and US President Donald Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the UN Agency altogether.
The result, in the midst of this crisis, is paralysis within the Security Council, which is the highest global authority tasked with maintaining international peace and security. The standoff not only rejects the current secretary general’s call for unity and resolve, it also challenges the founding principles of the United Nations itself and is a far cry from the vision set out by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the closing stages of the Second World War. He argued then for an end to international mistrust, suspicion and fear, saying, “We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.”
Second, the European Union.
This regional institution was born out of the same momentum that created the United Nations. Its original purpose was to prevent future conflict in Europe and it now comprises 27 sovereign states operating to some extent under shared regulatory structures.
Like the United Nations, the European Union described Covid-19 as an unprecedented challenge that it would meet in a spirit of solidarity. That has yet to happen and the consequences for this failure are predicted to be far-reaching and severe. On January 25th, as the international threat of Covid-19 first emerged, the European Centre for Disease Prevention as lead agency announced, “European countries have the necessary capacities to prevent and control an outbreak as soon as cases are detected.” By March, as the virus struck hard in Italy and Spain, that had been proved wrong. Even then, the European Union issued no cohesive guidelines to stop the spread. Governments hoarded supplies, haphazardly opened and shut borders, and imposed their own restrictions.
Sweden refused to implement any lockdown while in Spain citizens needed documentation to even step outside their homes. Yet, both are in Europe’s Schengen Area, which allows unrestricted passport-free movement among 26 European countries.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen apologized for letting Italy down in its time of need while French President Emmanuel Macron warned of the collapse of the European Union itself unless there was agreement on an emergency assistance fund to deal with the economic downturn. “If we can’t do this today, I tell you the populists will win,” Macron predicted.
As if on cue, Europe’s foremost populist leader, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, suspended parliament to rule by decree, citing Covid-19 as his reason. Orbán’s move underlines Macron’s fear that the pandemic’s knock-on effect would be the fueling of right-wing nationalism. Founded on unequivocal principles of democratic freedoms, the European Union cannot afford to be a club for dictators. We must be extra vigilant to ensure that the pandemic does not become a temptation for leaders to compromise democratic values under the guise of quashing the disease.
Third, sovereign states.
Some, like New Zealand, have earned high praise in handling the pandemic. Others such as the United States and Britain have fared less well exposing critical weaknesses in their own political systems.
In the United States, Trump aggravated the often-sensitive relationship between states and federal government, drawing accusations that he was fomenting domestic rebellion. He backed activists, some openly armed while protesting against their state governments’ lockdowns, specifically calling for the “liberation” of Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia, and he claimed absolute power across the country in dealing with Covid-19, but no responsibility, leaving that to the governors.
The United Kingdom has faced similar divisions, with Covid-19 leading to fresh debate about the breakup of the country itself. The pandemic and responses remind citizens that the United Kingdom is, in fact, a political construct of four nations, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a slight lockdown relaxation, it turned out he only had power to impose his measures in England. The other three nations refused, with Scotland refusing to rule out border checks on visitors coming from England as if it were a foreign country.
Ultimate responsibility for the protection of citizens lies with national governments. The role of international institutions is to coordinate, inform, advise and, in some cases, enforce, particularly when threats cross borders.
On the ground and within science, Covid-19 has led to a unity to eradicate the threat and get the job done. But politically it has uncovered structural flaws that need attention.
The European Union and the UN Security Council are two of the world’s most sophisticated institutions. Both have been found wanting over the Covid-19 response, and so far, neither has come close to accomplishing the missions for which they were created.
*Humphrey Hawksley is an author and journalist specializing in global issues. A revised and expanded version of his latest book Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Indo-Pacific and the Challenge to American Power is published by Abrams Press.