As we grapple with the pandemic, one wonders what happened to the world health watchdog and global governance structures that were built in order to counter this sort of crisis
In the months during which the Coronavirus outbreak has been afoot, it has laid bare the vulnerability and helplessness of an interdependent and interlinked world to the ravages that can be unleashed by a rapidly spreading novel communicable disease. The question one asks at this moment is, why is this so?
What happened to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the global governance structures that were built in order to counter this sort of crisis? Didn’t the world learn anything from the earlier outbreaks of communicable diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Swine flu (H1N1) and so on? The entire healthcare governance at the global level simply crumbled like a house of cards. There is complete disarray and confusion around the world, when ideally global protocols should have been in place to control the spread of the disease.
What has been witnessed during the pandemic is that countries have tended to act independently. More in tune with their domestic requirements (cultural pride, market demands and so on) rather than in a coordinated fashion as part of a global governance network.
On the one hand, the Chinese authorities had sought to suppress information regarding the appearance of the new virus (by some accounts the Chinese are still hiding the real numbers), while on the other hand a unified response to the disease, which was expected from the world and international institutions like the WHO (once its gravity became evident) was completely absent and is absent even today.
Nothing highlights the lack of coordination between countries better than the testing regime for the Coronavirus initiated by South Korea and the US. While South Korea made the testing of CoVID-19 free for its citizens, in the US testing was a paid endeavour in the initial days, which resulted in delayed identification of infected individuals and led to the rapid spread of the disease.
While the Chinese may be at fault in their failure to warn the world about the outbreak of the highly infectious disease right at its onset, their propaganda is correct to an extent that the developed world, with all its technological prowess, has surrendered before the Coronavirus. This begs the question, what has caused the failure of global healthcare governance?
The WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared CoVID-19 as a pandemic (rather late in the day) and asked countries to undertake preventive and protective public health measures that “strike a fine balance between protecting health, preventing economic and social disruption and respecting human rights.”
The WHO, while rightly emphasising the need to respect human rights, appears to have simply laid the responsibility of containing the pandemic along with the responsibility of preventing social and economic disruption, on national healthcare systems, which are patchy and inefficient in most of the developing countries.
Ideally it should have been at the forefront of the Corona war, advising countries on the protocols that needed to be followed. Instead its response was slow, confused and inconsistent. It doesn’t take a genius to imagine what the situation in developing countries would be when developed countries with better healthcare systems were unable to contain the virus.
As the pandemic has shown us, the spread of a contagion in any major economy will have reverberating effects on the entire global economy. Thus it cannot be the job of national governments alone to halt the spread of disease. It has to be a joint effort between the countries with the global health watchdog leading from the front.
However, the statement of the Director-General, which came out rather belatedly, was in the form of a recommendation rather than a concrete plan of action for nations to follow. It indicated a complete lack of power to effectively engage in governance of healthcare around the world and adopt a leadership role in the hour of crisis.
The reason behind the incapacity of the WHO to effectively engage in global healthcare governance appears to be the North-South divide that permeates international relations. This invisible line has divided the world into the global developing South, which comprises the underdeveloped and developing countries and the wealthy, industrialised North.
The countries of the global South are plagued with problems, in differing measure, of poverty, lack of respect for human rights, absence of democratic governance and so on, along with a deep distrust of the industrialised countries, who are perceived to be ready to use every instrument to control policy-making of the developing nations, for their own economic gains.
The developed countries, in the industrialised North on the other hand, have either left the global South to its devices or are attempting to provide strait-jacketed solutions to problems, instead of sharing the global governance space with them, in which an acceptable solution to the problems of the global South could be arrived at.
This exclusion of the South from participation has further fuelled the perception that developed countries are only interested in subverting governance of developing nations for their own economic gains. CoVID-19 has rudely awakened the world to the fact that the dividing line between the global North and South is not so wide as it appears to be and the North cannot ignore the problems of the South — be it human rights violations or poor healthcare — as something alien to them.
What is the solution then? The existing global governance architecture has fallen woefully short in managing the interdependencies and integration between countries. This is partly due to the speed of globalisation which accentuates these interdependencies and partly due to the Westphalian principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of States.
What is required at this juncture is a novel governance model which is based on international cooperation. This governance model should respect sovereignty but only to the extent that it does not cause hindrance in addressing transnational challenges that may require a global coordinated response.
Global governance implicitly mandates a certain level of international intervention which is contrary to the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention in each other’s affairs. In addition, this governance model would also have to address the asymmetries existing in the present structure of governance which lead to a participation deficit of developing countries in global norm creation, thereby accentuating inequalities between nations.
This new model should genuinely attempt to fulfill the mandate of Article III of the United Nations Charter which provides that there should be “international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
In the case of the present pandemic, while it is obvious that China is squarely to be blamed for the mayhem around the globe, the immediate requirement is that the WHO as an international organisation should be reformed as has been stated by the US, India and Australia.
The need for global healthcare governance has to be realised and the WHO should be vested with this responsibility.
For discharging this duty, the WHO should be provided with the necessary financial and human resources to address the issue of governance of healthcare around the world. The administration of the WHO should be made more broad-based and representative of global realities by increasing the participation of the global South in the organisation.
At a political level, it may be provided with similar administrative powers as are available to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) where it can direct a proper course of action instead of merely making recommendations that the countries may or may not follow.
Dilution of political borders is a reality and not just in the field of politics, finance and cyberworld but in the field of social and physical integration. The problems of countries, starting with basic healthcare, have to be addressed at a global level.
The earlier the world, both the and South, realises this, the better it would be for everyone around.
(Writer: VEER, MAYANK, NIDHI SAXENA ; Courtesy: The Pioneer)