COVID-19; The 21st century's herald for Multilateralism

Collection of flags

The COVID-19 pandemic has eternally shattered any deeply entrenched notion of invincibility, supremacy and affluence of the Goliaths of the world. The prowess of the infinitesimal virus has not only confirmed our collective vulnerability, but has humbled the most authoritative nations, their citizenries and their institutions.

This pandemic – mercilessly and indiscriminately – strikes at the time when the new world order, as peddled by its most powerful architects, has been dangerously marching towards unilateralism. Enter COVID-19: the infinitesimal multilateralist, which brought together the gigantic unilateralists in a search for redemption.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres a few months ago proclaimed a worldwide call to action to deal with the socio-economic bearing of the coronavirus pandemic with “a large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response amounting to at least 10 per cent of global GDP.”

Guterres posited that the harmonious plan would save lives, provide universal access to vaccines, infuse liquidity into the financial system and stem the haemorrhaging of unemployment amid the crisis, which he compared to World War Two.

The Rule of Unilateralism

For eons, we have witnessed the emergence of unilateralism, nationalism and provincialism around the world. Countries which for a long period spearheaded robust multilateral views and efforts have been gradually challenged by internal issues which tended to be disproportionately inward-oriented.

The simplistic, but populist, stance that a country’s internal problems reside external to its borders has slowly trickled into the psyche of many countries and has, in effect, muscled out multilateralist views and principles.

Some countries have gone so far as to restrict and prevent the movement of students and academics, riding on the sentiments of strident domestic political forces. We have witnessed travel embargoes on multiple countries, several in Africa.

Yet in the same breath, others are selectively permitting migration into their countries but only to those with high-end proficiencies and knowledge, surreptitiously siphoning off more professionals and resources which make them more globally aggressive.

In tandem with this trend, unilateralist forces have been gradually dwindling multilateralist forces, institutions and views. Multilateral tenets of governance, including development cooperation and international collaboration, have been frowned upon as unilateralism has entrenched itself in major global power centres.

Working together

Under earlier US presidents regimes, dating as far back as FDR, America took the lead to unite the global community against threats, whether to world health, the global economy or international security. It was George W. Bush who steered the worldwide community against the danger of international terrorism in the wake of 9/11 and against HIV/Aids in the African continent.

He and his heir, Barak Obama, amassed nations across all corners of the globe to organize a global effort to preclude the haemorrhaging of the global economy throughout the 08-09 financial crisis, and Obama bonded the international community again in reacting to the14-16 Ebola crisis.

In these and so many other international challenges of the last 75 years, American leaders in both the White House and Congress understood that even with all of its resources, the US could not take them on by itself. But without the leadership of the world’s richest and most powerful nation, the efforts of other countries would also fall short.

Working together, however, the world was able to overcome crises that in a previous era would have devastated nations and economies and left millions either dead or destitute. Never before in history has mankind been better positioned than today to confront a health challenge like the coronavirus and its economic effects. Yet, in surveying the landscape, no coordinated international undertaking appears evident. That is holding us back.

Flawed approaches, ignored realities

The Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr Abiy Ahmed penned an article in the Financial Times expressing the need for global cooperation.

He wrote: “There is a major flaw in the strategy to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Advanced economies are unveiling unprecedented economic stimulus packages. African countries, by contrast, lack the wherewithal to make similarly meaningful interventions. Yet if the virus is not defeated in Africa, it will only bounce back to the rest of the world.”

He went on to describe the current modus operandi as unsustainable, myopic and theoretically counter-productive.

A cornucopia of literature exists on the ethos of international collaboration in the pursuit of sustainable development and the peace and wellbeing of the global community. Alas, even in the face of these declarations and deliberations, there is little to show for it. Even with these pronouncements, annually, yellow fever kills almost 60,000 people, malaria kills 500,000 people and night blindness afflicts 2.55 million children.

The time has come to push the pendulum back.

The pandemic is plunging the world into an abyss of socio­economic and financial upset of unprecedented proportions, exacerbated by the acute health crisis. Many of the achievements attained by the SDGs are under existential threat. COVID-19 has exposed and intensified susceptibilities and imbalances in underdeveloped, developing and developed countries, expanding abject poverty and exclusion, and forcing the most vulnerable even further behind.

This is a watershed moment.

A sustainable, equitable and peaceful future is contingent on the appropriate national, regional and international policy decisions.

The pandemic buttresses the call for a new multilateralism in which international rules are calibrated towards the all-encompassing goals of sustainability, peace and social and economic stability and collective prosperity.