ECONOMIES, travel, healthcare systems, communities and lives are not the only wreckage that Covid-19 is leaving in its wake. Predictably, the virus has begun to exacerbate cracks in the existing international multilateral system that underpins much of our global, regional architectures and mechanisms.
Some of this can be attributed to systemic flaws underpinning the international system. But, it is the action — or lack thereof by political leaders, elected or otherwise — that have aggravated these fissures. There should have been decisive, reassuring leadership, and international cooperation for a cohesive, integrated response.
Instead, we got impositions of sudden unilateral travel bans without consultations, denials on the severity of the situation against mounting evidence to the contrary, a lack of any clear strategy or communication plan to manage both the outbreak and the resulting inevitable social panic, and dog whistling to deflect blame.
Worryingly, the two global powers that hold much sway over the global architecture are falling short of the responsibilities that come with their position.
The Trump administration’s handling of this health crisis thus far, both at home and abroad, is a total and utter mess. The insistence of the president and his political allies to blame China for their policy missteps is both pathetic and troubling. A decentralised and profit-oriented health system without universal coverage has left many Americans, especially those who cannot afford it, vulnerable.
The report on the administration attempting to secure exclusive rights to a potential coronavirus vaccine by a German pharmaceutical company will surely be one of the more memorable proverbial cherries on this still growing pile of manure. China, is basking in praise for its strict containment and whole-of-society approach in fighting the virus, along with its ability to quickly and publicly deliver aid to other affected countries.
However, it seems to also be engaged in another equally concentrated whole-of-society approach to blame some nefarious American plot as the cause of the virus. Never mind that it was the sheer opacity of China’s governance system that caused the virus to spread until it couldn’t be covered up anymore. Or that punitive measures were taken against whistle-blowers.
Or that one of the reasons it can afford to now distribute aid is that it bought up vast amount of medical stockpiles at the start of the outbreak, depleting them from other countries when the outbreak eventually reached their shores.
Regional organisations too, are having a tough go at it. The European Union is scrambling to come up with a joint response to Covid-19 as it finds itself in the frontlines of the fight. Previous attempts bore little fruit as members continue to enforce their own measures, often with little consultation with each other.
While it is premature to claim that EU and regional solidarity will be frayed beyond repair because of this crisis, it certainly does not make things easier.
Here in Southeast Asia, Asean member states have been working remotely with each other, sharing updated information on surveillance and containment, laboratory diagnosis and treatments. There has also been exchanges on disruptive travel restrictions and non-pharmaceutical interventions. Nevertheless, there has yet to be any public cohesive strategy to managing this pandemic, and responses at the regional level seem to be more reactionary.
There are multiple Asean ministerial and senior official mechanisms in place that can be comprehensively mobilised. Even the relatively obscure Cooperation on Civil Service Matters platform has a role here.
Nationally, some countries here are clearly doing better than others. But, as epidemiologists have emphasised, unless there is a concentrated regional effort to contain and minimise the spread of this virus, national efforts might ultimately count for naught.
Once this pandemic has passed, there needs to be a thorough post-mortem of what worked and what didn’t at all levels — national, regional and international. Not just in terms of managing the pandemic, but also its impact on international and regional mechanisms, architectures and systems, and how they reacted to prepare for the next global crisis.
To allow such an opportunity to take a long hard and honest look at ourselves to pass us by after all this, would be not only irresponsible and criminal, but possibly suicidal.
The writer is a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia