Canberra – The Diamond Princess was quarantined in February in Yokohama for a month. On March 19, the Ruby Princess was permitted to dock in Sydney and 2,647 passengers — 37 percent were foreigners — disembarked in Circular Quay next to the iconic Opera House, without any testing. Many transferred to trains, buses and flights to head home. By March 25, one passenger had died and another 133 were confirmed infected with COVID-19. Desperate contact-tracing began after three people tested positive. Port, city, state and federal authorities are still bickering over the blame for the fiasco.
Australian authorities could learn from Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan on weighing public health risks and the optimal balance between sufficiently slowing the disease, preventing an economic meltdown and maintaining a functioning society while the threat and responses evolve in a dynamic environment.
But for that, social capital and trust in governments and public institutions are vital, when in fact in almost all Western countries they have been rapidly dwindling in recent decades. It remains to be seen how much damage perceptions of ignorance and incompetence will cause to U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-election prospects. Or will he be seen to have been prescient in confronting China?
President George W. Bush responded to the global financial crisis with decisive U.S. leadership in upgrading the Group of 20 from finance ministers to heads of governments. The first G20 summit was convened in Washington in November 2008 and, along with the London summit in April 2009, helped to steer the world through the financial crisis. Fourteen summits have been held to date, the last in Osaka in June. The next is scheduled for Riyadh in November.
While still at the U.N. University, from Tokyo I teamed up with two Canadian institutions to explore upgrading the then-G20 finance meeting into a leaders’ summit. After leaving the United Nations, I joined one of the Canadian institutions to continue with the project. Our argument was that the Group of Seven was a club of wealthy nations that had once coincided with the powerful countries, but no longer. The U.N. Security Council permanent membership is even narrower and the General Assembly is too big and unwieldy.
A leaders-level group of around 15 systemically significant countries can offer a much happier balance of representative legitimacy and global decision-making capacity, with the U.N. providing universal validation.
But we concluded it would be easier to upgrade the existing G20-finance status to a leaders’ group than to create a new one.
We also explored the nature of a severe global crisis that could galvanize the requisite political support for the upgrade. Among the “candidate crises” were a global economic, health, terrorist or nuclear shock, climate emergency, mass famine, etc.
Our assumption was the gravest challenges confronting humanity are global in scope and impact, and require a coordinated global response, but the decision-making authority is still concentrated in states and only national leaders can order a coercive mobilization of the required resources. Hence the need for a leaders’ G20 global steering mechanism to guide the world through truly major crises as the sweet spot of size, efficiency, representativeness, legitimacy and effectiveness.
In the event, the G20 made two critical mistakes. First, it included too many tangential stragglers with no executive decision-making capacity to contribute to the efficient and effective solution for a global crisis. All excess baggage must be ruthlessly shed and the number of “leaders” attending pruned severely to just 20; the rest can be briefed after the summit.
By contrast, the list of topics that form the core agenda of discussion must be expanded beyond finance to address all pressing global challenges, with one or two prioritized at any one summit. The 2020 summit should thus focus sharply on the coronavirus crisis.
The pandemic has starkly highlighted the inadequacy of current governance arrangements. In a world in which all politics is stubbornly local but most big-ticket problems are global, the G20 is uniquely placed to bridge the global governance gap.
Drastic public health capacity building is required at the national level in many countries to create capable competencies under appropriately mandated and streamlined structures. But resort to beggar-thy-neighbor policies, of the sort implied by the U.S. effort to bribe their way to the front of the line in the development of a vaccine or other medical equipment, will prove damaging to all.
At the same time, the Security Council is irrelevant to tackling this crisis and the World Health Organization as the relevant specialized agency within the U.N. system has also been shown not fit for the purpose.
Noncommunicable diseases dominate mortality figures at a global level and in high-income countries, while deaths from infectious diseases, malnutrition, nutritional deficiencies, neonatal and maternal fatalities are the most common in developing countries. The dominant killers in the rich countries represent the mortality correlates of an affluent lifestyle and those in low-income countries reflect the mortality correlates of poverty.
“Solidarity is the new selfish” in such a highly unequal world, writes Federica Mogherini, the former European Union high representative for foreign affairs. And with its unique bridging role between the global North and South, the G20 is ideally placed to translate global solidarity into operational plans.
On March 25, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on the G20 to fund a massive stimulus package for businesses, workers and households in developing countries.
At a video conference the next day, G20 leaders agreed to inject $5 trillion into the global economy to counter the economic and social impact of the coronavirus crisis.
This is not enough. As Robert Zoellick, a former president of the World Bank, writes: “The U.S. should rally partners in the Group of 20 to ban restrictions on exports of medical products related to COVID-19 so that the world avoids price spikes, prevents panics, gains benefits of scale and specialized production, preserves variety of sourcing — and saves lives.”
The G20 leaders could still rise to the challenge to coordinate an effective and collaborative global response in detection, containment and eradication strategies, promulgation of health and safety protocols, openness of distributed and specialized supply chains to keep health systems as well as economies functioning, and so on.
Absent U.S. global leadership, can Beijing fill the role and will it be allowed to do so by those exerting strategic pressures to decouple from China?
Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.
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