Is Coronavirus Global Governance’s Failure?

Should we have expected governments across the world to be better prepared for COVID-19 or did global governance fail us?

If anyone had told you at the end of 2019 that the following year will see a global lockdown due to a pandemic causing thousands of people to die, you may have found it a little hard to believe. But, that is our reality, and even though the coronavirus crisis has been unprecedented, should we have expected governments across the world to be better prepared for such an event that will most likely be written in history?

Global Governance: What Is It Supposed to Achieve?

Global governance was initially implemented to draw on geopolitics and international relations, mainly honing in on defence, peace, trade and diplomatic relations. Being a movement towards global political cooperation, global governance is supposed to search for mutual answers and responses to problems which impact more than one jurisdiction and region.

In short, global governance is supposed to “provide global public goods – including catastrophic risk management, which puts in place measures to maximally reduce the likelihood and impact of an event which has the potential to cause the death of 1 billion people, globally -, peace and security, justice and mediation systems for conflict, functioning markets and unified standards for trade and industry[1].”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is considered to play an essential role in the global governance of health and disease.

But with institutions of global governance, such as the United Nations, World Bank and World Health Organisation usually having limited power to enforce compliance, are they able to achieve what they are set out to accomplish? Global governance arrangements, in general, favour “flexibility over rigidity, prefer voluntary measures to binding rules and privilege partnerships over individual actions[2]”, and such partnerships and voluntary measures could quite be the ingredients that are causing global governance to fail.

What Went Wrong with COVID-19?

Let’s take our current pandemic as an example. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is considered to play an essential role in the global governance of health and disease.  Global health governance requires “WHO’s leadership and effective implementation of their core global functions to ensure better effectiveness of all health actors, but achieving this global mission could be hampered by narrowing activities and budget reallocations from core global functions”[3] and the budget has been one of the factors that have seen the organisation falling short of meeting one their main goals: disease eradication and technical cooperation functions for emergencies.

Another reason behind WHO’s failure could be due to its slow response, which, of course, can be argued from a political point of view.

A lack of funding could be a strong reason. It’s estimated that USD 3.4 billion a year is needed to fund such “global functions” of WHO pandemic preparedness, but funds have fallen tragically short of this target, even following the 2014 Ebola epidemic[4]. But despite governments funding the WHO, even sometimes prioritising health sector loans above anything else, countries have never given WHO the independence, power or resources to enable the organisation to actually do what it has set out to accomplish.

Another reason behind WHO’s failure could be due to its slow response, which, of course, can be argued from a political point of view. The WHO had reason to suspect that COVID-19 could evolve into a pandemic as of last New Year’s Eve and began communicating with Chinese officials – although it is not clear to how frequent such communication took place. The new disease was reported, but WHO continued to repeat Beijing’s assurances by claiming there was nothing much to worry about.

Politics has gotten in the way of many things, and this pandemic may be one of them, however, not all blame falls onto a single international body.

Nonetheless, on 20 January 2020, the outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, as by then, other countries, such as  Republic of Korea, Japan, Thailand and Singapore, had reported cases of coronavirus, and it is argued that precious weeks were lost before the start of a full-out effort to contain the spread of the disease[5]. Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, for example, criticised the WHO’s reaction to the initial cases reported; he claimed the WHO may as well be renamed the ‘Chinese Health Organisation’ indicating the institution has grown too close to China and stated: “Early on, if the WHO had not insisted to the world that China had no pneumonia epidemic, then everybody would have taken precautions”, he said on 28 March. Politics has gotten in the way of many things, and this pandemic may be one of them, however, not all blame falls onto a single international body.

How Did Governments React?

A key issue here, that I have touched on previously in my article on whether Davos has actually achieved anything impactful over the years, is that for global organisations to make a difference, they need cooperation from governments. The WHO relies on its host States for information about conditions that might warrant a global public health response. In fact, learning from previous mistakes made with the Sars outbreak, the WHO made clear that such delays had serious consequences, which led China to change their law and promise to commit next time to ensure delays were not going to repeat a similar outbreak. Did China break their promise to do better?

The UK, too, appeared to showcase reluctance to act decisively with lockdowns and whether Boris Johnson and his government were too busy with Brexit or too slow to act is one aspect, but it seems, again, that speed and being well-equipped, medically and systematically, are the factors at play here.

Regardless, different countries have seen a different outcome and reaction to COVID-19. New Zealand has seen a minimal impact, which is seen to be due to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s quick response to enforce lockdown at an early stage. Premature measures have worked to the country’s favour, and speed, it seems, is a factor. Despite criticisms of their government trying to hide initial reports of the virus[6], by March, China had control of the virus, leaving their Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian stating: “China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight has been widely acclaimed.” China, he added, set “a new standard for the global efforts against the epidemic.”

What about countries that are struggling to enforce such control? During the 2014–15 Ebola crisis, the United States assembled and led a coalition of dozens of countries to counter the spread of the disease, yet now, The Trump administration took a different leadership style, by halting funding to the WHO and initially struggling to enforce social distancing and relaying mixed messages about the disease[7]. With the US and its citizens standing up for their constitutional rights and thus their freedom, the US lacked the same level of control China had, therefore leaving some states to have a spike of coronavirus cases.

Most of the key decisions around lockdown and public health measures seem to have been decided and are being led at national level –  including within EU member states where multinational institutions have moved slower than national governments.

And, despite the fact that UK government already had legislation at its disposal with the Public Health Act 1984 giving a range of powers to a range of authorities and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which, again, gives emergency powers, they still found themselves having the most coronavirus deaths across Europe. The UK, too, appeared to showcase reluctance to act decisively with lockdowns and whether Boris Johnson and his government were too busy with Brexit or too slow to act is one aspect, but it seems, again, that speed and being well-equipped, medically and systematically, are the factors at play here.

What Lessons Has COVID-19 Taught Global Governance?

We spoke to Liam McMonagle, Partner at Thorntons who touched on how in recent years, there has been a real difficulty in building international consensus around other global challenges, like climate change, and so some of the problems in joining-up national approaches to the coronavirus pandemic are unsurprising.  “Even allowing for that, there does seem to be a very noticeable lack of cooperation verging on outright hostility and diplomatic tension between some countries”, Liam shares.

Most of the key decisions around lockdown and public health measures seem to have been decided and are being led at national level –  including within EU member states where multinational institutions have moved slower than national governments. “We must hope for a greater degree of international cooperation as we move into the next chapter of this”, expands Liam.  “The virus doesn’t confine itself to national boundaries and it is unlikely people will want to for long either, even if we need to use quarantine measures for a time. Until a medical solution is found, significant prevalence of the virus anywhere in the world will be an ongoing risk to all of us. Finding and rolling out a medical solution globally will depend on a high degree of international cooperation across many sectors, even if we are lucky enough to develop solutions here in the UK.”

Arguably, the global system for defeating new diseases failed with regard to COVID-19: if an epidemic was predictable, then a pandemic could have been preventable.

It seems here that the WHO needs more authority and power to enforce decisions. If the WHO had legal powers to enforce their advice on states, similar to the Geneva Convention, perhaps things would remain in better order and prevent another outbreak in the future. However, compliance is needed and all states need to abide by the rules and it is hard to construct a unilateral set of rules when governments and states follow different systems. Would the US, with socialism and capitalism rooted in its states, follow the same rules as communist China, for example? Problems could arise here and, as shown with Germany’s lack of compliance with the Geneva Convention of 1929 during the Second World War, international bodies need individual states and their governments to cooperate.

Arguably, the global system for defeating new diseases failed with regard to COVID-19: if an epidemic was predictable, then a pandemic could have been preventable. The WHO, alongside with governments across the world, should have played a central role in the detection and avoidance of a COVID-19 pandemic in the critical window of January 2020. With individual empowerment, increasing awareness of human security, institutional complexity, international power shifts and the liberal world political paradigm defining the future of global governance[8], the WHO alongside its international bodies and governments, need to transform how we design and manage authoritative health governance – domestically and globally.

Should global organisations have more authority when seeking out and sharing information?

As stated by Tom Pegram Associate Professor in Global Governance and Deputy Director of UCL Global Governance Institute: “Whether or not existing global governance configurations such as the UN and the WHO can be repurposed to address systemic global risks is an open question. This is not simply a call for more funding to the WHO or other intergovernmental bodies. Its dysfunctions are symptomatic of a broken global political system.”

Should global organisations have more authority when seeking out and sharing information? Such a pandemic demands the best science, researchers, resources and, most importantly, governance. Without the latter, the rest falls to pieces; states fail to efficiently report urgent matters, countries fail to enforce appropriate measures leaving humanity itself to be the one that ends up feeling the brunt of the lack of clarity, synergy and rapid response.

[1] https://globalchallenges.org/global-governance/

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/palcomms201545

[3] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261610936_The_Global_Role_of_the_World_Health_Organization

[4] https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-is-a-failure-of-global-governance-now-the-world-needs-a-radical-transformation-136535

[5] https://www.justsecurity.org/69945/pandemics-and-the-need-for-global-governance/

[6] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-03-18/coronavirus-could-reshape-global-order

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52125039

[8] https://www.nature.com/articles/palcomms201545

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