COVID-19 is the catalyst we need to fight nationalism – by uniting us all to solve the crisis
21 APR 2020
It is undeniable that the coronavirus crisis has brought globalism to its knees. As British economist Philippe Legrain argued, "It may deal a blow to fragmented international supply chains, reduce the hypermobility of global business travelers, and provide political fodder for nationalists who favour greater protectionism and immigration control." And it looks like the effects will be long-lasting, undoing years of multilateralism. From the European Union struggling to find a minimum common denominator to support its southern region to the US halting exports of protective masks to Canada, countries are turning inward, away from openness and often from solidarity, too.
However, after seeing many wealthy nations failing to contain the virus, the truth might lie on the opposite side of the field. The little molecule keeping billions of people in lockdown is showcasing the need for increased global governance and cooperation, with impetus not seen since the horrors of the Second World War. The daunting experiences that most citizens of the world have been going through in the last months - from the loss of loved ones and material deprivation to mental health strains - are in no way imputable to an excess of global cooperation. Those sufferings come from the inability of governments to collaborate, share information, data, and best practices, and learn from each other.
As a global problem encompassing oceans and continents, the idea that a pandemic is considered to be a country-specific problem is one of the most short-sighted considerations that world leaders have drawn. On the one hand, there is China, who delayed the spread of information to protect its regime, and as a result, ended up wasting precious days of preparation for the rest of the world. On the other hand, most countries looked the other way once they had all the information needed to take quick and effective measures. Despite international warnings and the first case on its soil dating back to January, the US only started performing Coronavirus testing at the end of February. Instead of pulling their resources together to face the virus and follow the World Health Organization (WHO) guidance, countries ignored the problem until it was inside their houses.
Governments that refused to look beyond their borders lost precious days, and sometimes even weeks, of preparation time that could have saved countless lives, alleviated suffering and put an earlier end to this crisis. And it is not like evidence wasn't there. Italy has been one of the worst-hit countries in the world. Yet, even when images of army trucks transporting bodies out of northern Italian towns went viral across the globe, most of its neighbours did not take action to contain the spread of the virus until much later, knowlingly putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. France had even asked its citizens to go to the polls for local elections, 24 hours before enacting its lockdown.
In short, cooperation fell apart. Instead of having intergovernmental bodies leading the charge, institutions were dragged into geopolitical bickering. President Trump publicly lashed out at the WHO on Twitter, alleging its favouritism toward China. The EU struggled to keep it together, incapable of showing united leadership to maximise the speed of its response; the debate that divided the block for weeks was whether or not to issue much-needed financial support in the form of joint debt to the struggling South. These dynamics gave a leeway to extreme nationalists around the world. Consider Hungary's Orban who has used this as an opportunity to take unlimited powers to “deal with the crisis” or Brazil's Bolsonaro who has kept denying that coronavirus is even a threat. Supranational institutions' lack of power did not provide a counterbalance to populists' hostility toward globalism.
As of mid-April, some Western countries seem to be heading toward recovery, or at least a plateau of the number of new cases. But the worst may still be to come. Despite its 7,500 ventilators for 20 million people (1 for every 2,700 inhabitants), New York is struggling to deal with the outbreak. The Central African Republic has just three ventilators for its 5 million people (1 for every 1.7 million inhabitants), with many other countries facing a similar picture. The difference is striking - and the consequences are nightmarish - for all of us. If one continent or country is struck and struggles to deal with an outbreak, it is not an isolated problem; it will become humanity’s challenge. As Bill Gates recently explained, we need a global approach to the disease: if it spreads in the Global South, with all the catastrophic consequences this would have, it will then re-infect wealthier nations in a series of deadly waves.
Take the strong leadership showcased by the WHO in 2003 during the Sars outbreak. In essence, it saved a considerable amount of lives: “fewer than 1,000 people worldwide died of the disease, despite it reaching a total of 26 countries.” This excellent example of international cooperation provided immense support, ultimately saving a significant number of lives.
It is in times of great adversity that the need to fight for a better future arises and becomes more potent than ever. Out of the First World War came the League of Nations. The advent of the Second World War wiped it out but prompted the creation of most of our current supranational institutions. COVID-19 is not only the living proof of the dangers of isolationism, but it also represents a clear opportunity for the next leap forward. What will the world look after the Great Pandemic of 2020? As Richard Horton explained, the WHO: “has been drained of power and resources. Its coordinating authority and capacity are weak. Its ability to direct an international response to a life-threatening epidemic is non-existent.” And this affected tremendously its ability to deal with the crisis. But this doesn’t have to be the case; competences need to be given systematically to supranational bodies that can answer and manage the world’s existential threats. People first, national interest after, one might say, COVID-19 should serve as a trigger to further unify the world.
Nation states have proven over time their lack of willingness to accept guidance and directions on how to tackle crises, while being ready to take credit for supranational bodies’ successes and to point fingers at them when anything goes wrong. But this cannot continue any longer. While heads of states continue to look inwards and disregard the real tragedies that the world is facing, as well as common opportunities that may arise, citizens need to act. Unfortunately, we do not have a vote in the election of the UN Secretary-General, and have little sway through traditional democratic tools on geopolitical trends.
However, we have one power: to unite people across borders and do the job our governments are not capable of doing, pushing for global collaboration and actions. Some might dismiss it as naivety, but it's already happening. Just before the pandemic, we founded NOW!, the global movement mobilising humans to solve global challenges. The only way to tackle the most significant threats of our time is through the creation of a global movement of people standing as one to fight for our future. A couple of months, in and with thousands of people already joining from more than 80 countries, it seems that the pandemic is creating the awareness that we need to come together to face shared challenges.
Health makes a strong case for the need for supranational governance for global crises, threats, and challenges. But it is not the only one. Climate change, nuclear proliferation, human rights, fiscal justice - you name it. In the modern world, no wall or border will protect us from crisis. We need to accept that. The time to act is now or never. As nationalists are gaining ground, the urge to unite globally is stronger than ever.