Canberra – The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting socio-economic crises highlight the need for global circuit breakers to identify, isolate and quarantine systemic risks early. They give a human face to the reality that the institutions of international governance have lagged behind the rapid emergence of global threats.
On April 19, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne called for an independent inquiry into the pandemic’s origins and China’s handling of it. In Japan, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said that the WHO (World Health Organization) could be renamed the CHO for Chinese Health Organization.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s freeze on U.S. funding to WHO provoked outrage. He accused the WHO of being China-centric in promoting disinformation and insisted it be held accountable. His vast army of critics were stunned at the timing. Stopping WHO payments in the middle of a pandemic cannot but increase the global death toll. It illustrates two of his signature traits: a mistrust of multilateralism, and blame-shifting for his own incompetence in recognizing problems early and dealing with them effectively.
Australian and U.S. federal and state authorities have adopted sometimes mutually contradictory policies on COVID-19. The European Union, the world’s “thickest” regional organization, has failed the coronavirus test. If well-established, prosperous and stable industrial democracies cannot agree on a coordinated response to a public health emergency, why the surprise that global governance is sometimes dysfunctional and ineffectual? The WHO works worldwide to promote universal health care, monitor public health risks, prepare for emerging epidemiological emergencies and coordinate responses. It sets international health standards and guidelines and provides technical assistance to countries. Its 7,000 staff are dispersed across 150 countries and regions in addition to the headquarters in Geneva to deliver on this broad mandate. It deserves the main credit for eradicating the scourge of smallpox in the 1970s. Similarly, the WHO coordinated the international investigation into SARS and worked closely with health authorities in affected countries to provide epidemiological, clinical and logistical support.
The WHO fell short in the early responses to COVID-19. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, elected director-general in 2017 with active Chinese backing, has publicly praised China’s “transparency” but never publicly upbraided it for suppressing information or punishing whistleblowers. However, public criticism of a powerful member state is rarely helpful. Their cooperation is essential to fulfilling the mission and delivering practical outcomes and results. COVID-19 cannot be eradicated in the Asia-Pacific without the WHO’s lead engagement and China’s active involvement.
The 194-member World Health Assembly sets WHO policies, approves budgets and reviews the work of the secretariat. How many countries vote on top leaderships, policies, budgets and activities of international organizations based on an impartial assessment of what is best for its mandated mission? The pathology of politicizing specialized agencies is most acutely reflected in the balance between assessed financial contributions that contribute towards strengthening the institutional integrity (17 percent for the WHO), and voluntary contributions that attempt to shape its work priorities to donors’ agendas (80 percent). The U.S. has been brutal in kneecapping heads of international agencies who refuse to kowtow. Among the most notorious cases is that of Jose Bustani, director-general of the chemical weapons implementing agency. Not only did Washington use its full might to oust him in 2002; Bush adminstration official John Bolton even played a "Godfather" heavy in warning him they knew where his children lived in New York.
Some day we will learn if the novel coronavirus originated in the wet markets, or was carried there by a researcher from a scientific lab, or escaped from the lab by some other route.
Regardless, both WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization have long warned of the dangers of wet markets. David Nabarro, the WHO special envoy on COVID-19, rightly says: “We don’t have the capacity to police the world. Instead, what we have to do is offer advice and guidance.” Ghebreyesus called on governments to increase production of protective equipment — gloves, medical masks, respirators, face shields, gowns — by 40 percent and to rollback export restrictions. What did governments do? In a policy described as “sicken thy neighbor,” they imposed restrictions, including outright bans, on the export of critical medical supplies.
Only someone as cognitively challenged as Trump could believe that the United States can simultaneously disengage from multilateralism and prevent China from capturing the leadership-cum-influence ground thus vacated. Ditto for the belief that freezing funding from the world’s only organization to deal with health emergencies in the middle of the worst pandemic in over a hundred years is a helpful contribution to crushing the coronavirus. Trump is yet to fill the U.S. seat on the 34-member WHO Executive Board vacant since 2018.
Weeks after the WHO declared a global emergency on March 11, Trump tweeted the virus was under control in the U.S. If he wants to find out why the U.S. leads the world in the coronavirus death toll, instead of launching an inquiry into China-WHO collusion, he should look in the mirror. On April 20, some New Yorkers said they will launch a class-action suit against the WHO for gross negligence. Yet until mid-March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was urging residents to go about their daily lives, send kids to school and patronize city businesses. In a March 2 tweet, he encouraged people to “get out on the town despite coronavirus” and go see an Italian film festival at the Lincoln Center.
The crisis is an opportunity to reboot the ethic of global cooperation. The U.N. system is a trusted agent for the necessary tasks of surveillance, detection and guidance on response measures because of its universality and the resulting legitimacy; its expertise accumulated over decades of experience; its scientific objectivity alongside its political neutrality; its presence in the field in so many countries around the world that gives it a truly global footprint; and its unmatched convening authority and mobilizing capacity.
The pandemic also validates the core humanitarian motives behind the 2017 nuclear weapon ban treaty. In an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Tom Sauer and I argue the pandemic should lead to the adoption of a new norm of intensive care unit bed capacity for assessing the moral permissibility of any military weapon. Because the world could not cope with the humanitarian consequences of any nuclear weapon use, the U.S. and all allies sheltering under its nuclear umbrella should embrace the ban treaty.
The U.S.-Australian calls to hold China accountable would be more credible if they themselves were held accountable for the criminal aggression on Iraq in 2003 that caused more deaths, destruction and economic damage. Don’t hold your breath. States want to instrumentalize, and in this case even weaponize, the institutions of global governance against strategic rivals and potential enemies, but work furiously to discredit, delegitimize and even demonize an institution that turns a critical scrutiny on their own behavior.
Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, a senior research fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and a former U.N. assistant secretary-general.
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