Washington – The global crisis over the COVID-19 pandemic calls for a global solution, but so far the international community has not shown a strong desire to get on the same page.
Instead of formulating a coordinated front in the fight against the coronavirus, world leaders are taking a domestic and unilateral approach and attempting to manage the contagion within their own borders by themselves.
U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have been preoccupied with the domestic political and economic aspects of COVID-19, with this year’s presidential election seemingly at the top of his mind. As a result, he has not exercised his power as the leader of the free world to call for a united response to COVID-19.
Despite the fact that the United States is chairing the Group of Seven leaders’ summit, Trump has shown no interest in reaching out to his G7 peers to form a cohesive response to COVID-19.
Instead, it was French President Emmanuel Macron who called for a united response by G7 leaders against the pandemic. Trump has shown virtually no interest in playing a central role in the Group of 20, either, and it was Saudi Arabia’s King Salman who called for an increase in funding for a COVID-19 vaccine.
For liberal democracies, the crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time. Liberal democratic values were already under assault by populist leaders, and thus far COVID-19 has dealt its heaviest blows to advanced Western democracies.
The United States and Japan are currently facing potentially catastrophic threats. American hospitals are being overwhelmed by an influx of patients and Japan may be on the brink of a similar reality. The U.S. has the world’s largest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the crisis continues to grow, with new hot spots emerging around the country.
And Japan, though having far fewer cases compared to many countries in the West, declared a state of emergency last week.
In short, both the U.S. and Japan seem completely consumed with meeting the tremendous domestic challenges at hand.
Meanwhile, China — where the crisis began late last year — and Russia are attempting to promote heavy-handed, Orwellian approaches that combine cutting-edge surveillance technologies with illiberal political values.
Further damaging the prospects of a united response, the World Health Organization has fumbled its handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The WHO was slow to recognize COVID-19 as a pandemic, even when it was still largely contained in China and possible to contain, failing to perform its mission of sending early warnings of the seriousness of the disease to the world community.
Even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had a questionable reputation, particularly among some European member countries.
His effort to reorganize the international body has been widely regarded as ineffective, if not a failure, as its professional and experienced bureaucracy has been made weaker.
Tedros has also been criticized for pandering to Beijing, whose support he desperately needs at the WHO.
The director general accepted at face value the reported number of COVID-19 cases and deaths provided by China without any investigation and analysis on the part of the WHO. The criticism reverberated as more countries were hit with the virus, with Finance Minister Taro Aso saying recently that the WHO should change its name to the “Chinese Health Organization.”
For all its shortcomings, though, the WHO will remain the global framework under which countries deal with contagions and infectious diseases.
But if and when the crisis abates, the U.S. and Japan — as leaders of open democracies — must still be in a position to create a mechanism to deal with pandemics and health crises, especially given the questions over the effectiveness of the WHO.
The two nations, which enjoy the longest-standing security alliance in the world, have various assets and resources to do so.
Even though the U.S. has been suffering badly due to a lack of effective political leadership, the fact remains that it has the most expertise in mitigating threats from infectious diseases in terms of medical knowledge, research and development, industry and human resources.
The U.S. also has assets in the finance, industrial production and military sectors to support its medical and public health resources. Japan has similar resources in many of the same areas to complement the U.S.
As leaders of the democratic world, the U.S. and Japan could work together in a range of areas.
First, the two countries should adopt a broader definition of national security. COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that infectious diseases can devastate the very foundation of any country.
Rather than narrowly focusing on traditional forms of military threats, the U.S. and Japan should include pandemics as a core part of mutual national security interests.
This conception change needs to be supported by a new legal and institutional approach to the framework of the U.S.-Japan security alliance involving experts who have traditionally been left out of national security discussions, such as researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Health in the U.S. and the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan.
Second, the U.S. and Japan should consider joint production and stockpiling of necessary medical machines, devices and personal protective equipment for doctors, nurses and other workers at medical facilities.
Just as military operations are backed by a strong defense industrial base to deter and defeat enemies, medical operations also need an industrial base to fight pandemic diseases.
The U.S. has been scrambling to acquire these machines, devices and equipment amid the pandemic — despite the fact that it is one of the most highly developed industrial and technological countries in the world.
In order to ensure the stability and soundness of production and stockpiles, the two allies should create supply chains for key parts and materials that are sourced from the U.S., Japan and their reliable allies. Needless to say, the supply chains should be made as secure as those of traditional defense production and procurement.
Third, the U.S. and Japan should jointly come up with ways in which their wealth of medical and pharmaceutical experts, including doctors, researchers, developers, nurses and various support staff, can be mobilized to fight against pandemic diseases. The fact that many Japanese health and pharmaceutical experts were trained at American medical schools and hospitals would facilitate coordination.
There is already a framework to base this idea on: the U.S.-Japan Global Health Dialogue. The third U.S.-Japan Global Health Dialogue, which was held two years ago, was attended by the two Cabinet ministers of the U.S. and Japan in charge of global health and experts from the National Academy of Medicine, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and lawmakers from the two countries.
The U.S. and Japan should also consider how to operationalize their efforts to prevent a pandemic from undermining their mutual strategic interests.
The two allies should hold regular joint training and tabletop exercises with epidemics in mind to ensure a coordinated process for pandemic crises.
Finally, the U.S. and Japan must get serious in engaging the WHO. The WHO may be giving favorable treatment to China, but the fact remains that the U.S. has been largely dismissive of the body in recent years, whereas China has been nurturing its relationship with and increasing its influence in the WHO.
In order to help shape and strengthen the global health regime, the U.S. and Japan should jointly take the WHO seriously and form a united front with G7 countries and other like-minded countries.
What is certain is that this will not be the last time a pandemic threatens the world. Wet markets in China, which have deep roots in the country’s culinary culture, will certainly continue to exist.
As development continues in remote areas of the world, contact between wild animals, insects and humans will continue to increase.
New viruses may become active due to environmental changes caused by global warming.
There is no telling what the geopolitical scene may look like when the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis given the massive global economic uncertainty.
But the U.S. and Japan, as leaders of an open democratic world, have a moral obligation to at the very least show a willingness to take the necessary steps to prepare the world for the next pandemic.
Satohiro Akimoto is Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.