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Foreign Policy

New Strategic Thinking Post-Pandemic

Oct 08, 2020
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

The critical role the coronavirus pandemic has been playing in world history cannot be overstated. It’s a game-changer that has turned the world upside-down and topsy-turvy. Few countries can claim they are certain of the future, or ready for it, because what faces us in the foreseeable future is a mess of uncertainties and unfathomable pitfalls. We need to clear our collective heads and devise new strategies to meet ever-greater global challenges ahead. 

When will the pandemic blow over? Is another one just as deadly or even more lethal just around the corner?

The verdict is in that the pandemic is certainly not over, and new waves are expected to hit Europe and other continents over the winter, together with regular strains of flu, according to experts at the World Health Organization. At least it will not be over until there are enough workable and durable vaccines to distribute around the world, or until more than 60 percent of the global population acquires antibodies through infections. Fortunately, many countries have made huge emergency efforts in the research and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines. There is light visible at the end of the tunnel. Let us keep our fingers crossed and be prepared for protracted and possibly repeated fights against future pandemics.

Is it true that more pandemics will come, or that just “crying wolf”? The present consensus among scientists and medical experts is yes, with a “but” as to when a new pandemic will hit us again. The prospect is scary enough, considering what COVID-19 has done, but the history of microbial evolution and its interaction with humankind tells us not to be blindfolded or let our guard down. Do we have to accept the cold reality and be fully prepared for such an eventuality? The answer is obvious. We have no choice if we wish to live, and live a better life. 

With the global health governance system and its crisis management ability in total disarray, have lessons been learned to rebuild and reinforce the system as vigorously as possible in the context of constructing and maintaining a better-functioning architecture? 

In this connection, I agree with Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker that “short of a global thermonuclear war and the long-term impact of climate change, an infectious disease pandemic has the greatest potential to devastate health and economic stability across the globe.” Other disasters are limited in space and time no matter how horrible they are, but pandemics know no boundaries and can last for a long time.

The 1918 flu pandemic claimed roughly 100 million lives worldwide, many more than the world war preceding it. Today COVID-19 has had already infected tens of millions, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, and the numbers are still growing fast. Because we have modern medicine, fewer lives are being lost now compared with the 1918 pandemic. Yet it is still hard to believe, for instance, that deaths in the United States from COVID-19 have already far exceeded the number of lives it lost in both the Vietnam and Korean wars.

Given the incalculable damage pandemics can do to humanity, an array of multilateral institutions and treaties were put in place after World War II as part of the global governance framework. So it’s ironic and regrettable that despite the tremendous efforts made so far, the seemingly impeccable system did not live up to expectations — though one might note that the system itself is not to blame so much as its members, who are the decision-makers. To the extent the global public health system functions, it is the member states, and especially the major powers, that are the real governors. The negative and dismissive attitude of the U.S. toward the WHO is quite revealing of this chilling reality.

Unlike military and economic spending, inputs into public health — in particular toward pandemic preparedness and response — are low on the priority lists of governments and more often than not are underfunded, understaffed and marginalized. 

The resent lessons are sobering, however. It’s not really a matter of resources (or lack of them); rather it is a matter of choices and priorities. Hopefully, after this pandemic passes, there will be some deep, soul-searching reflection that will reshape mindsets and move the world in the right direction of reprioritizing resources to save both lives and livelihoods.

A litmus test will be whether the international community, especially major powers like the U.S., will have the political will to pool resources and revive the WHO and restore its central role in coordinating global efforts in response to public health emergencies. There is no excuse for saying “Yes, but …” If we in the community of nations can learn the painful lessons in our hearts, we must quickly remedy the dysfunctional global health system — as well as the domestic health and pandemic response systems in many countries — to make them capable of dealing with the black swans of the future.

Here again I want to stress that cooperation is a necessity, not an option. The United Nations is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and the UN General Assembly is going on right now. It must play an major role in fully discussing and devising an action plan to revive the sustainable global public health system with the WHO at its center. Inaction is suicidal in its collective sense. 

With such a devastating picture from the uncoordinated go-it-alone responses to the pandemic, are nations now ready to put aside whatever bias they may have against one another and revisit the concept a global village or a community of nations with a shared future — the essential element needed to rebuild a minimum level of global governance? 

It’s common sense that the two most important issues in global governance are security and economics, and that both are in jeopardy because of the current pandemic. “Lives or livelihoods” is today’s version of “To be or not to be,” as the pandemic has taken so many lives and the livelihoods people rely on for survival.

In many developing countries there are large cities in which poor people live in cramped quarters, with scarce or nonexistent sanitation providing fertile ground for the spread of infectious diseases. This is unacceptable.

Given the highly connected world we live in, the global village is a reality, and a community of nations with a shared future is no mere slogan. It is a statement of fact. Naive isolationism that means closing borders and severing all connections to outside world is not going to work in the long term. It is no real solution at all. In times of calamity, helping others is helping oneself, simply because it is not possible to live in total isolation in the age of globalization.

Globalization is not the enemy; it is the solution. Just look at how scientists and medical communities are working together across borders day and night since the coronavirus outbreak to find and produce vaccines for it, even as politicians bicker over things that only serve their short-term interests, such as elections.

Many ask a pertinent question: Is it possible through concerted efforts to strike a balance between “lives and livelihoods” by readjusting the economic growth model and global supply chains and taking swift and strident measures when necessary? The answer is certainly positive if countries can work together in the spirit of building a community of nations with a shared future.

The future is in our hands. We should be serious about it.

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