The COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed millions of people across the world, has been the most significant event in the 21st century. The pandemic has not only created a health emergency in every country but upended modern life, globalisation and the relations among countries across the globe.
The UN called the novel coronavirus one of the most challenging crises since its foundation after World War II. The pandemic’s social, political and economic consequences made the shambolic disunity of the global institutions that had been founded to manage and coordinate any instance of a global crisis piercingly stark.
Most glaringly, the World Health Organization (WHO) — the organisation tasked with leading the international response against the virus —has been slow in acting under intense politicisation. According to some experts, the UN is failing to perform its outsized role as the pandemic rages on across the globe.
Long before the onset of the global pandemic, neo-liberal institutionalists had informed us that some threats produce strong demands for cooperation because states cannot address them independently. Moreover, the interdependence of trade and travel amongst countries makes them mutually vulnerable to the pandemic and, therefore, intensifies the need for cooperation.
As long as other countries do not take steps to safeguard themselves from the coronavirus outbreak, a state’s borders will remain exposed to the disease’s transmission from outside its boundaries. Scholars of collective action refer to this as the “weakest link” dilemma — governments are only as safe as their weakest link in the network.
In a world order system, states must facilitate cooperation and collective action by delegating tasks to International Organizations (IOs). These IOs can undertake roles that most governments cannot execute alone, like coordination and information gathering, by pooling and centralising resources through a single agency.
International institutions such as the UN have the mandate to tackle the global problem, which has proven devastating for humanity. The UN was formed to deal with major crises of the world and forge cooperation among member states. Member states have put their trust in it to tackle this world crisis.
It has been successful to a great extent in solving the world crises that have unfolded in the past. Though there are various ways through which the UN tries to solve any global crisis, multilateralism and cooperation have been some of the successful methods. If states/actors cooperate, the most likely situation is a harmony game, where all countries live in peace and collectively solve the world’s problems.
However, if states do not cooperate, the situation most likely resembles a deadlock, where states have strong incentives not to cooperate. In this situation of distrust and scepticism, states pay focus on their relative gains. Therefore, cooperation is the key to success in international relations.
Cooperation has been more favourable in the field of global public health than in other areas. The combined benefits of avoiding infectious diseases and limiting economic damage are considerable. But there is a somewhat perplexing lack of cooperation in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Politics and governance explain the readiness and responses of governments, societies and IOs. States will show no hesitation in cooperating with other states if they find it in their interest. For example, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. found it in their interest to eradicate smallpox amid the Cold War.
The U.S. and China had come forward on various issues in the Obama administration, from the financial crisis to climate change to the Ebola outbreak. The WHO, which functions under the General Assembly and specialises in anticipating and alleviating international health insecurities, has been incredibly successful in exterminating Polio from the world in the past.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the historical and structural limits of the UN, in general, and WHO and UNSC in specific. The WHO has been susceptible to the whims of powerful states and their ideals, which define their level of influence.
Part of the issue derives from the WHOs funding model, consisting of a mix of assessed dues paid by members based on their relative income and voluntary donations made by governments (and non-governmental entities) for specified objectives. Years of growing reliance on voluntary contributions based on member states’ choices for unique health functions, such as initiatives to combat obesity, have harmed WHO.
Furthermore, on 7 April, 2020, President Trump put a temporary halt to U.S. donations to the WHO.
Other problems that the WHO faces include a lack of coercive power, decentralisation, bureaucratic issues and politicisation of member states. In the instance of the COVID-19 epidemic, the WHOs response was slow due to strong politicisation.
In comparison to the Ebola crisis, the WHOs reaction has been delayed in the case of COVID-19, from China’s initial reluctance to allow WHO specialists into the country to G7 debates over what to label the virus to President Trump’s hold on financing for the WHO.
The epidemic has also exacerbated pre-existing tendencies, such as geopolitical rivalries inside the UN and tensions within the UN Security Council among five veto countries. In addition, the political friction between China and the U.S. made the security council partially dysfunctional, thus, further delaying the collective action against coronavirus.
COVID-19 has posed a pressing need for global cooperation for finding ways to reinvigorate cooperation within the UN. The current crisis demonstrates that a robust and comprehensive global health framework is required, which will inevitably involve cooperation and coordination among states and other relevant actors.
COVID-19 is a wake-up call for us to reinvent and reinvest in global cooperation mechanisms. Challenges like COVID-19 or any other world crisis demand long-term planning and collective commitment, not reactive and temporary crisis management — the UNSC’s usual modus operandi.
The hindrances are multifold but not impossible to surmount or avoid. COVID-19 will likely sustain several global dysfunctions and political conflicts for years to come, but it also presents an opportunity to rethink global order, for better or for worse.
However, that reimagining will most likely need to be done outside the UNSC, given that the UN organ was never created to be critical or to transform the status quo that it holds, especially the power of its veto members.