Govern the world in a good manner. International lessons from the Corona Pandemic

by Günther Bächler

“Stay at home!” Nobody would have thought, that 2020 would be marked by such a clear statement. Above all, no one would have believed that this international emergency call would be based on health policy grounds. Rather, the images of massive street riots in numerous capitals, which marked the past year, would come to one’s mind. But the streets are empty; there is a state of emergency. Nobody knows for how long.

If we want to learn international lessons from the Corona pandemic – better today than tomorrow – then we should look at the consequences of the crisis from a more distant perspective. What we can observe are distortions of a magnitude much greater than that of the world economic crisis and the global financial crisis. Although the global yardstick is applied in such comparisons, we see the blue planet staggering through space in a rather rugged and dishevelled manner. The global threat creates rifts between countries and regions. Barriers down, borders closed, export bans, national emergency plans, state of emergency. The missing face mask becomes a symbol of a misguided globalisation. Little solidarity, but much of “not in my backyard” thinking. The lives of the own citizens are above the lives of others, even above human dignity.

From a distance we also observe that the nation state as the level of action of the global system can protect the respective population most effectively. International organizations play a marginal role and if at all, then as potential lenders. A closer look at the national level, however, brings to the fore very different reactions: these range from strict round-the-clock confinement to careless disregard, from harsh emergency decrees to trivialization and defamation, from authoritarian attacks with the help of the security forces to the liberal transfer of responsibility to the individual. And then there are those who, out of incapacity or out of a willingness to take risks, rely on infestation and herd immunity.

Can the human species with all its destructive capacities in the “anthropocene” age still afford such a range of existence-threatening reactions? Counter question: What would global governance have to be like to deal effectively with Covid-19 and the pandemics that are about to hit us? In response, I see five decisive factors:

  1. We need the cooperation of the international community to establish and legitimize global normative governance for the protection of the world population. This is of existential importance, because it is highly probable that mankind will be soon hit by further pandemics. The foreseeable spread of germs of all kinds may come from climate change (exposure of unexplored germs from melting permafrost soils), from the uncontrolled destruction of habitats in which carriers of germs are at home (hundreds of species of bats) and from (wild) animal husbandry, especially in China. The normative guidelines for the prevention, avoidance and treatment of pandemics form the framework for a vertical and subsidiary structure of levels of action. It is thus a policy that includes guidelines and strategy, global defence mechanisms, early detection, the development of vaccines and medicines, and concrete protective measures. A body with the authority to issue guidelines would have to be created for this purpose. The nation state and the sub-state levels are not unimportant in this context: in the subsidiary system it is the central level of action for the effective implementation of global guidelines (like the federal states or cantons in a federal state). The simplest solution would be to give the UN Secretary-General (SG) the necessary powers. The Secretary-General could be advised and supported by a pandemic committee. The World Health Organization (WHO) as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would have to be part of this committee. Internationally well-connected (interdisciplinary) pandemic research should be given privileged access to the committee. The General Assembly would decide on the mandate for the SG Pandemic Centre and monitor its implementation. Strengthening the UN has the advantage that the member countries would not have to establish a new organization but could quickly and comparatively easily create such a central authority. Every measure ultimately depends on the will of the states. Regarding the current situation, this will should be rather strong.
  2. We need global security cooperation, which does not have the task of military defence, but rather the protection of humanity and national populations. An appropriate authority would have to contribute to the fact that the normative guidelines are cooperatively and collectively observed by the community of states and that strategies for their implementation are developed. The UN Security Council would be the appropriate body for early detection, timely action and strategic global civil protection. Regarding the current paralysis of the body, reform concepts that have been worked out long ago should be seriously discussed and put into concrete terms. Like the previous UN Security Council resolutions on the preservation of world peace, resolutions to protect the world population from pandemics would have to be adopted. A reformed Security Council, enlarged to include countries from all continents, should become a system of collective pandemic security. The Security Council would also be represented on the Pandemic Committee at the SG, thus ensuring communication between the policy and operational levels. The UN would also have to support member countries in the fight against pandemics by building up stocks and reserves; due to the numerous peacekeeping operations and UNHCR missions, the UN can draw on valuable experience in logistics (for instance the base in Brindisi).
  3. In times of pandemics we need good governance at national level. The question is: How do wisely governed countries deal with global guidelines in concrete terms? What we can observe already today: Those who react early and efficiently can get the chains of infection under control relatively quickly and protect the socio-economic structure and culture. Those who react too late tend to panic and order a shutdown, only to have to reverse it far too early and under economic pressure. The four to six weeks that the European countries lost on average in February and March 2020 through hesitation and procrastination will cost us all dearly. All policy areas and the economy depend on the very sub-system that in most countries is the weakest link in the chain: the health system or emergency medical services and its equipment. The number of intensive care beds thus becomes the yardstick for the enforcement of a state of emergency. The global policy should be this: Instead of risking a high number of infected people and boundless costs, the comprehensive socio-economic and cultural standstill must be avoided by early detection, prevention, testing and tracing as well as isolation. In addition, there is a modern intensive care sector that is prepared for pandemics and appropriate precautions (storage of safety gear). The international community can learn from those countries that have been relatively successful in combating the pandemic: New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. It cannot be a coincidence that all these countries are governed by women who have all stood out in in the past for good governance (see also the latest issue of “Forbes” on this subject).
  4. We therefore need efficient and effective subsidiary implementation of directives and measures at global, national and local level. Subsidiarity enables the locally adapted and differentiated implementation of policy guidelines. Effective civil protection should be based on locally available knowledge, established structures and available resources. The sub-state bodies and above all the municipalities would in turn have the important subsidiary function of concrete civil protection (sanitary and hygienic implementation). Civil protection and public healthcare are also a question of poverty reduction. The latter is therefore also an essential preventive factor. Civil protection involves capabilities comparable to those of military defence: early detection, readiness and rapid reaction capability. In addition, there are instruments for prevention (vaccination), diagnosis (testing) and therapy (medication, intensive care capacities). Perhaps we are back to where we were during the Cold War: In the system of overall defence, which aimed at the “normal” functioning of society in times of crisis and war. Today, the components of preventive and cooperative pandemic control would inevitably be added. The concept embedded in the UN and international relations as “soft law”, “Responsibility to protect”, could easily be extended to include the dimension “Protection of the population from pandemics” and applied to national action.
  5. We need a global evaluation system for all this, so that smart government action is rewarded and national solo efforts, government failures or mindless government action is sanctioned. Like the existing Human Security Index (HSI), the UN Pandemic Centre could introduce an index for dealing with pandemics. As with the HSI, a ranking would have to show which country has reacted or can react to pandemics and how. Depending on where the individual government is ranked, it can expect a package of international measures: These range from incentives, recommendations and sanctions to concrete support. Target areas are the following: preventing emergency ordinances and limiting a possible state of emergency geographically as efficiently as possible and overcoming it quickly again, as well as preserving and protecting human freedom and dignity despite the challenges. The ranking also includes the transparency and information policy of a country affected by a pandemic. For example, the initial silence and restrictive information flow about the pandemic in China was obviously partly responsible for the massive outbreak of the pandemic in Lombardy and later worldwide.

The introduction of an effective global governance structure may sound utopian in view of the increasing geopolitical competition and the accentuating rupture of the international system. But we have no choice considering interdependent developments that threaten our existence (climate change, environmental degradation, pandemics). As the Corona Crisis impressively shows, the fight against the pandemic has long since (again) become a matter of conflict between the liberal-democratic and the authoritarian-nationalist world on a global level. Those who value freedom cannot allow a virus to become a weapon in the hands of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes and their security organs, which want to destroy freedom and make the global state of emergency the rule. The common fight against virally transmitted authoritarian pandemics will be long and difficult. This virus, too, has long been among us. The longer we wait, the more it spreads. As Albert Camus says in the novel The Plague (1947), which has been widely read again today: “Those who have to wait too long will at some point stop waiting”.

Democratic and well-governed countries do indeed have no choice: they must demand a global authority to protect their own freedom and their citizens, in order to create the worldwide framework conditions for a humane, socio-economically sustainable and democracy-compliant handling of global threats (pandemics, climate change, environmental changes). Only in this way can barriers be lifted again.