The Covid-19 Pandemic has exposed flaws in the system of economic globalization, a cornerstone of development for countries around the world for the past several decades. Covid-19 is going to force countries to look inward and become economically less dependent on other nations for essential goods and services. The public health response to the pandemic also is inward-looking. It emphasizes social distancing, strengthening local supply chains, and closing borders to prevent the spread of the virus.
While these survival measures are necessary to address the virus, it is important that national leaders not lose sight of the ongoing need to collaborate with one another. We live in an inter-connected and inter-dependent world where countries need each other to survive. The lives of people in one country are now deeply intertwined professionally and socially with those in others. An increasing array of global issues such as pandemics, climate change, and global trade-can’t be solved by individual countries working on their own but require global collaboration.
As the planet emerges from the pandemic, the question is whether countries can do the necessary work to strengthen their public health and economic systems while maintaining collaboration with other countries to solve the global problems that also impact these systems. This article explores how best to answer that question.
Responding to National Needs—
National leaders are first and foremost concerned about responding to the public health and economic development needs of their countries that have been exposed by Covid-19, such as the following:
A) Establishing Domestic Production of Public Health Supplies and Services
Covid-19 has exposed the fact that many countries are unable to meet the urgent demands for medical supplies and other essential public health commodities needed to address the virus. The existing global supply chain had left many countries dependent on other nations for personal protective equipment for health care workers and medical supplies such as testing kits. They have found that they lack the local manufacturing infrastructure needed to produce such products and deliver urgent services when a virus such as Covid-19 attacks their country. As countries emerge from Covid-19 they almost certainly will want to establish more nationally sourced public health and medical supply systems so that they won’t be caught unprepared again.
B) Shutting Down International Travel
The effort to combat Covid-19 has resulted in an almost complete shutdown of international travel. Countries do not want to place their citizens at risk of getting the virus from a person from another country who may be infected. Those coming from other countries, if admitted at all, often are required to be put into a 2-3-week isolation and quarantine period. This is understandable from a public health point of view, but what has often accompanied travel bans is an explosion of xenophobia and racism. Americans and Europeans, for example, voice racial epithets against the Chinese who they think caused the virus while the Chinese mistreat Africans blaming them for spreading the disease.
C) Re-establishing Economies and reducing Unemployment
Covid-19 has severely damaged the economies of many countries. Businesses have been forced to close, millions of people have lost jobs, governments have lost revenue, and the GDP of most countries has dropped. Low-income communities and other marginalized populations are among those most severely affected. So, it is understandable that political and economic priorities going forward need to be investments to revitalize national economies in ways that benefit all. However, in doing so, countries may lose sight of their commitments and responsibility to address the pandemic at an international level as well as other related global issues that impact national economic recovery plans.
Responding to Global Needs
Covid-19 also requires working with other nations to respond to future pandemics and a range of related global issues such as the following:
The very nature of a pandemic is that it is global in scope. Almost every country in the world sadly now has cases of Covid-19 and related deaths. The virus knows no borders. This means it will not be fully eradicated in one country until it is eradicated in all countries.
To achieve this global goal countries are going to need to work closely together—share information about the virus, collaborate in the development of actions and treatments, and adopt common policies for screening and testing people.
B) Climate Change:
The issue of climate change interacts with Covid-19 in many ways and needs to be addressed as part of each country’s response to the virus. For example, the emergence of new pathogens such as Covid-19 has been linked to a decrease in biodiversity that forces species of animals, that can infect humans to relocate to crowded urban areas. Covid-19 economic recovery policies also present opportunities for countries to invest in climate-friendly jobs and energy resources that will help put countries on a more sustainable course of economic and social development.
Even before Covid-19 the world was facing an unprecedented immigration crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people from the global south, driven by conflict, poverty, and climate change are trying to migrate to countries in Europe and North America. The pandemic is just one more causal factor in this migratory chain. Migration is critical to the well-being not only of those migrating but also to recipient countries that rely on migrant labor for essential tasks. But immigrants now will be seen as potential carriers of the coronavirus, and national minded leaders will use immigrants as scapegoats for the pandemic and other domestic problems. Anti-immigrant policies will be on the rise in many countries. However, globally-minded national leaders will see the need to accelerate the development of a collaborative response to the immigration crisis in light of Covid-19. The recent Global Compact on Migration is a good step in that direction. It provides guidelines for managing migration at the local, national, regional, and global levels.
D) International Development
In the midst of combatting Covid-19 and worrying about the rebuilding of economies, few want to think about problems affecting poor countries. Yet pandemics and many of the other issues faced by the developed countries, e.g., migration have their roots in the developing world. Therefore, if leaders ignore the needs of developing countries they will do so at their own peril. A better course of action would be to maintain and even increase investments aimed at strengthening public health, education, economic development and climate change efforts in developing countries. This will be a tall order for a cash-strapped post-Covid-19 world. But it needs to happen.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently called for an immediate cease-fire in conflicts around the world that is needed to tackle the pandemic. The U.N. chief said: “It is time to put armed conflict on lock-down and focus together on the true fight of our lives.” Guterres said the world faces “a common enemy — COVID-19” which doesn’t care “about nationality or ethnicity, faction or faith.” He said women, children, the disabled, marginalized and displaced and people caught in armed conflicts, which are raging around the world, are the most vulnerable and “are also at the highest risk of suffering devastating losses from COVID-19.” “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” the secretary-general said. (Edith Lederer ABC News March 23, 2020)
It is unlikely that Guterres’ call for cessation of conflict will be widely heeded. Yet his point should be taken seriously. The real threat to world peace moving forward may be pandemics such as Covid-19 and/or human-induced pathogens. It may no longer be in the best interest of countries to equate national security exclusively with military threats from other nations; to invest heavily in military preparedness or sponsor proxy wars in different countries. Current trends already indicate that expensive conventional warfare may be on the wane replaced by the threats of cyber warfare and terrorism. Moving forward the threat of pandemics undoubtedly will be added to this list.
In the era of Covid-19 it is perhaps politically expedient and understandable for countries to turn inward and back down from international commitments. However, we must not use the pandemic as an excuse to seal off our relationships with other countries and not participate in international responses to the pandemic and related global problems. To do so would be to the detriment of our countries as well as the planet. Pandemics are one of a growing number of related issues (e.g. climate change, immigration, conflict) that require a global response. Therefore, we must find ways to both strengthen ourselves domestically while at the same time enhancing our commitments to global collaboration.
This requires leadership at all levels. We need national leaders who are not afraid of building alliances, entering into international compacts and agreements and strengthening participation in global governance institutions. We also need international leaders, like UNSecretary-General Guterres, who have the stature to convene countries and persuade them that it is in their best interest to work together.
Right now, the countries of the world are like a school of fish, caught up in the net of Covid-19 and struggling to escape, each in their own boat. Hopefully, as they each swim to the surface they will see others who have survived and join forces with them to build a sustainable ocean.
About the authors: Ron Israel is Co-Founder and Director of The Global Citizens’ Initiative, a non-profit organization, based outside of Boston, that brings people and organizations together to address global problems ( www.theglobalcitizensinitiative.org ). Hisham Jabi is a Middle East international development expert based in Washington DC and a member of the Board of The Global Citizens’ Initiative.