Missing In Action

The lack of a globally co-ordinated response to Covid-19



by Helen Clark


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Since January, I have been following international coverage and debate about Covid-19 closely. Looking back over almost three months now, what seems extraordinary is how flat footed the international response has been.

An exception to that has been that of the much-maligned World Health Organisation (WHO), which from the outset has endeavoured to provide information and advice as soon as it could. That is not easy in contexts where not all countries report as fully and accurately as they should. The level of transparency we expect and enjoy here in New Zealand is not in practice universally.

Covid-19 was declared by WHO to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January. That was the sixth time such a declaration has been made in the past seventeen years, following SARS in 2003, swine flu in 2009, Ebola in 2014 and 2019, and Zika in 2016.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in three West African countries eventually galvanised international action. The United Nations Security Council in September that year passed a resolution declaring it to be a threat to international peace and security, and urged the international community to do whatever it could to help. A special UN mission was set up to co-ordinate relief. Massive resources flowed into Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. At the UN Development Programme, we re-purposed all our activities to fight the epidemic, and in 2015 led the pledging conference in New York which raised hundreds of millions of dollars for economic and social recovery from the catastrophe.

In contrast, the UN Security Council has singularly failed to step up to the Covid-19 challenge to date, not withstanding that the virus is spreading like wildfire globally, is collapsing health systems, causing many avoidable premature deaths and much avoidable illness, and wrecking nations’ economies and fiscal positions. One must ask of those responsible for this inaction at the highest level of the multilateral system: if not now, when? If not us, who?

The reason for the profound silence is of course geopolitics. Some at the Council are more concerned about attributing blame for the virus than in global co-operation. And, in general, these are not good times for multilateralism.

Nonetheless, I am encouraged that nine of the ten non-permanent members of the Security Council pressed for and got a virtual meeting of it convened last Thursday. It focused mainly on the impact on the UN’s own operations, but was one hopes the basis for more collegial future action. Both the American and Chinese formal statements to the meeting were moderate in tone. Two draft resolutions are circulating.

Before the meeting, I and other former senior women in multilateral affairs wrote to the President of the Council, urging that it apply the precedent with Ebola and declare Covid-19 to be a threat to global peace and security. We will continue to advocate for that. There is every sign that the Secretary General Antonio Guterres would welcome such a resolution and the leverage it would give for mobilising the urgent globally co-ordinated action which has been sorely lacking to date.

Another initiative of former leaders has targeted the G20 leaders because of their capacity to mobilise resources at a time of crisis. The action led by former United Kingdom Gordon Brown in 2009 which raised a trillion dollars to stop the world economy going over the proverbial cliff is a case in point.

Nothing less is required now. The letter to the G20 on Covid-19, co-ordinated by Gordon Brown and signed by dozens of former leaders, including five former New Zealand Prime Ministers, sets out the scale of the challenge in meeting the urgent health needs, and of supporting in particular the poorest countries with both surged health capacity and economic underpinning. It suggests that debt repayments from poor countries be waived this year, and that the IMF should have another USD500-600 million for Special Drawing Rights. There is a clear road map set out in the letter on the way forward, and some hopes that IMF and World Bank meetings coming up very soon will allocate more resources.

I believe that a Pandemic Emergency Co-ordination Council should be established immediately, as recommended by Dr David Nabarro who has advised the UN and WHO on pandemic responses for years. It should be a standing body which is convened whenever there is a global health emergency. It should be comprised of the heads of the UN, the WHO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. With each of those galvanizing their respective capacities and constituencies for action, the impact would be large and positive.

The alternative is for the world to drift on to greater catastrophe as it is now. There is too little solidarity. The full impact of the spread of the virus has yet to be felt by the poorest and most marginalised in fragile states. There is a real prospect of death and hunger on a great scale, and of communal violence. As yet, not enough of those who could make a difference in stopping the pandemic having searing and long-lasting impacts are listening. What needs to be done is clear, and it is vital that the political will for globally co-ordinated action is mobilised urgently.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Helen Clark served as the 37th Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 1998, and as Ambassador of the UN Development Programme from 2009 to 2017.


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