from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Multilateral System Still Cannot Get Its Act Together on COVID-19

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz speaks via video link during a virtual G20 summit on coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 26, 2020.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz speaks via video link during a virtual G20 summit on coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 26, 2020. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters

In the absence of U.S. leadership, multilateral responses to COVID-19 have been inadequate to date.

March 26, 2020

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz speaks via video link during a virtual G20 summit on coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 26, 2020.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz speaks via video link during a virtual G20 summit on coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 26, 2020. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters
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In the three months since China first reported a novel coronavirus to the World Health Organization (WHO), international cooperation has been missing in action and global solidarity has been AWOL. Rather than cooperate to defeat a shared threat, nations have repeatedly taken unilateral steps to shield themselves and engaged in counterproductive sniping over who is to blame for the pandemic. This week was supposed to offer a reprieve, with the Group of Seven (G7), Group of Twenty (G20), and the United Nations announcing important international initiatives. Instead, it underscored just how divided and unprepared the world remains as it confronts the greatest threat to global public health since the Great Influenza of 1918. The biggest disappointment has been U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who has been more preoccupied with countering Chinese propaganda than exercising global leadership.

A Fractured G7

There were a few glimmers of hope, notably on international economic coordination among G7 nations. On Tuesday the finance ministers and central bank governors of the world’s most important advanced democracies issued a joint statement pledging to “do whatever is necessary to restore confidence and economic growth, and to protect jobs, businesses, and the resiliency of the financial system.” They promised to use all the fiscal and monetary tools at their disposal to ensure liquidity and maintain aggregate global demand, while implementing the public health measures to stop transmission of the coronavirus, and to support the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as they grappled with “the human cost and the economic challenges posed by COVID-19.” The unified statement reassured financial markets and suggested that the Trump administration, which had upended recent G7 summits and been slow to invoke the forum in the current crisis, might finally be warming to the group.

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Public Health Threats and Pandemics

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Unfortunately, Washington undercut that solidarity very next day, when G7 foreign ministers convened via videoconference to discuss broader political and security dimensions of the pandemic. Efforts to release a joint communique collapsed when the United States, following President Trump’s lead, insisted that the document refer to the “Wuhan virus” and blame China for its global spread. America’s G7 partners categorically rejected the U.S. demand as a needless affront to Beijing and a colossal distraction from the international response, resulting in each nation issuing its own communique. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the U.S. stance, noting the “intentional disinformation campaign that China has been and continues to be engaged in,” but he offered no explanation for why U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had signed onto a statement the previous day that referred only to “COVID-19” and “the coronavirus.”

A G20 Summit Short on Action

On Thursday it was the G20’s turn, in a videoconference summit of heads of state and government organized by Saudi Arabia, the group’s 2020 chair. Until this week, the G20 had been conspicuously silent on the emergency, mystifying observers who argued that President Trump should have exercised U.S. global clout and convened the group weeks ago, when the pandemic was still in its infancy. Had he done so, the G20 could have reprised the firefighting role it played in the depths of the global financial crisis.

In November 2008, then-President George W. Bush had invited the leaders of the world’s most important established and emerging economies to Washington. Under his successor, Barack Obama, the G20 asserted itself as the world’s premier forum for global economic coordination, taking coordinated, decisive action to save the world from a second Great Depression. With a pandemic raging and the global economy once again teetering on the brink, it was high time to call in the G20 fire brigade.

Media commentators framed Thursday’s virtual summit as a test for both U.S. global leadership and international solidarity. If so, the United States and its G20 partners managed a barely passing grade. Their joint statement was broad and vague. G20 members pledged to do “whatever it takes” to minimize the social and economic fallout from the pandemic, and they offered reassuring language about the need for multilateral cooperation in confronting an “unprecedented” pandemic.

The assembled governments proclaimed their desire to bolster the mandate and capabilities of the WHO, assess gaps in global pandemic preparedness and response, accelerate research and development on vaccines and the production of essential medical equipment, and to “strengthen global safety nets.” Beyond these generalities, the document was devoid of specific commitments. The leaders did not address the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) request that G20 nations double its resources to $2 trillion, nor did they agree to allow poor nations reeling from the pandemic to suspend repayment of their debt obligations, a step the World Bank and the IMF had both urged. At least the forum did not get bogged down in debates over what to call the pandemic, which it called the “COVID-19 crisis.” Still, Sino-American frictions were evident, as Chinese President Xi Jinping used his allotted speaking time to call out U.S. trade protectionism as the major impediment to global economic growth.

More on:

Public Health Threats and Pandemics

Global Governance

Coronavirus

G7 (Group of Seven)

G20 (Group of Twenty)

The UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan

Given that the G20 collectively represents eighty percent of global GDP, its desultory response to the pandemic will have negative implications for the rest of the UN membership—the “G173," as it were. This is particularly true for fragile and conflict-affected states that were in dire circumstances even before the coronavirus appeared.

To address their plight, on Wednesday morning UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres launched a $2 billion appeal to member states to support a coordinated Global Humanitarian Response Plan to fight COVID-19. The scheme’s purpose is to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable populations are not abandoned to face the pandemic alone. The need is urgent. COVID-19 has already strained advanced market economies like Italy and the United States, as well as emerging ones like China and India.

The scale of human suffering could be catastrophic as the disease takes hold in less developed countries, particularly weak and war-torn nations where the majority of the world’s poor now live—and where doctors, nurses, hospital beds, masks, and ventilators are in much shorter supply. If New York City risks being overwhelmed by the disease, what hope is there for Lagos, Nigeria, or Dhaka, Bangladesh, to say nothing of the one million newly displaced living in camps in northern Syria or the inhabitants of shattered Yemen, which has already recorded more than two million cases of cholera?

The UN response plan, to be run by the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is aimed at 51 vulnerable countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The money will support the relief operations of nine UN agencies and their nongovernmental organization partners, as they seek to deliver essential testing kits and medical supplies, craft public information campaigns to reduce infections, protect at-risk refugees and internally displaced persons, and create “airbridges and hubs” to get relief workers and supplies where they are needed, among other things. COVID-19 has already disrupted the lives in the world’s rich countries, explain WHO Director General Tedros Adnahom Ghebreyesus and UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock. “It is now reaching places where people live in warzones, cannot easily access clean water and soap, and have no hope of a hospital bed if they fall critically ill.”

The plan’s weakness is its modesty. Two billion dollars amounts to two dollars apiece for the roughly one billion people living in fragile states, or, alternatively, twenty-five dollars for each of the world’s 70 million-plus displaced persons. There is also a danger that UN member states will simply shift their current humanitarian outlays to meet the $2 billion UN target. To have any appreciable impact, the UN response plan must leverage additional sources of foreign assistance. Earlier this month, the World Bank pledged $12 billion in concessional loans, grants, and technical assistance to developing countries grappling with coronavirus. It is now time for wealthy donor nations including the United States, which is poised to approve a $2.2 trillion domestic rescue package, to step up their global game. Though its performance to date has failed to match previous U.S. crisis stewardship, there is still time for it to lead an effective response to this multi-pronged threat.

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