Inarguably, Covid-19 is the most momentous crisis that has afflicted the globe — striking at the very roots of globalization which, despite hiccups in recent years, had generally been the constant refrain of most nations of the world since the end of the Cold War. The League of Nations, which came into being after World War I, had failed to produce remarkable results towards collective security and disarmament. However, UN appeared to be doing a shade better although, with no disciplinary powers, it lacked the competence to whip errant nations into line, this impotence being exacerbated by the brazen and often unethical and immoral use of veto powers. However, it still commanded respect and benefitted from voluntary contributions in terms of men, money and material from member nations as well as donations from private entities.
Covid-19 served to lay bare a dark side of one of its organs — World Health Organisation (WHO), a specialized agency responsible for international public health. Its accessorial role in pandering to China’s highly irresponsible cover up over the extent and nature of Covid-19’s proliferate propagation in Wuhan and beyond, which in turn led to the mushrooming of the disease into unsuspecting victim nations the world over, has earned WHO opprobrium at a point in history when it should have been discharging its onerous public health charter.
There appears to be enough evidence to suggest that Tedros Adhanom, the WHO Director General, ignored warnings by Taiwan et al under pressure from China; indeed, he continues to eulogize China’s endeavours to confront and overpower the disease within China. Not only that, in January he officially tweeted that preliminary investigations by China had found no clear evidence of human to human transmission of the virus. WHO’s callous and irresponsible acts of omission continues to inflict deaths even as we read this. Social media tirelessly recounts the fact that as a Minister in Ethiopia he had gone out of his way to serve Chinese business interests in his country and that it was China’s patronage that brought Tedros to the DG’s chair, a favour he feels obliged to repay by heeding China’s bidding even if doing so comes in the way of his discharging that chair’s commitment to international public health.
As Covid-19 attained pandemic status, UN should have had a ‘united nations’ leadership role in combating it. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) thus bore the onus of strategizing a global campaign and US, forever projecting itself as the world leader ought to have been at the forefront of that campaign. However, Covid-19 had punished US’ misplaced sense of invincibility and complacency so brutally that it was forced to focus on its own rapidly rising morbidity and mortality statistics. France took the initiative by seeking a virtual summit of the five members to bring together a plan to control the damage being caused by the virus. However, it did not get very far as two of the UNSC members – US and China — were embroiled in a battle over China’s role in the origin and the explosive propagation of the virus on an unwary world.
The abdication of US of its informally recognized leadership role is a noteworthy symptom of Covid-19 which has compelled nations to look at domestic priorities first. For US it is a logical extension of its ‘America First’ policy but the nationalistic approach to tackling Covid-19 (in contrast to a coordinated international one) is now the dominant trend geopolitically. The reasons are largely economic in nature as domestic political pressures compel businesses, especially those with multinational interests, to focus on national ‘needs’ first and foremost while relegating international ‘wants’ to the background. Self evidently, this could be the single largest factor adversely impinging on the global economic downturn that is confidently predicted by analysts and whose portents are already manifest in most nations’ economic affairs. Understandably, ‘my nation first’ will dominate international polity for some time to come.
It is reasonable to presume that the result of putting own national interests will weigh heavily upon multinational organizations which, even before the Covid-19 onslaught, were under strain. European Union, World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (and the list goes on) were already showing the effect of disparate tractions from member nations. While Trump-led US was stridently commenting on (lack of) productivity of some, China was engaged in subverting processes to make the world conform to its own aspirations. Covid-19 has thus come at a most inopportune time and has dealt a severe blow to an already strained international order.
Meanwhile, the US stoppage of UN contribution to WHO and reports about China suspending tie-up between Shanghai and London stock exchanges are indicators that a coming together of these two is unlikely. Indeed, there have been reports of China cancelling the dollar peg in stock exchange transactions and deal with the official link to the Chinese Yuan instead. So what does all this portend for the UN?
At the time of writing this, US and China are locked in an impasse in UNSC over a draft resolution calling for a 90 day humanitarian pause in worldwide conflicts in the face of Covid-19 pandemic. The deadlock implies that UNSC will not see a quick preparation of a collective response to the crisis crippling the world. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has been stressing that nations should come together and that the big powers ought to work to make UNSC more effective. However, the ongoing verbal brawl between US and China about the origin of Covid-19 does not bode well for reconciliation between the two. In March, Guterres had called for a global ceasefire but the initiative was not taken up by UNSC. On April 2, a group of six countries (Ghana, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Norway, Singapore, and Switzerland) facilitated the unanimous passage of a nonbinding resolution in the 193-member General Assembly calling for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” Covid-19. However, neither the General Secretary’s initiatives nor the endeavours of the General Assembly have adequately offset the lack of harmonious accord in the UNSC.
At this moment when the world needs global leadership to confront Covid-19, the UN appears to be at its lowest level of vigour and vitality. The duration between now and the breakthrough for a vaccine and a treatment for Covid-19 will decide how much further the UN’s robustness is eroded; one hopes that the ‘my nation first’ syndrome is reversed and the US-China spat resolved peacefully so that UN does not become an addition to the Covid-19 mortality statistic.