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Multilateralism in the time of coronavirus

Abdoul Salam Bello
By Abdoul Salam Bello

Senior Fellow at the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. He served at the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank Group, worked as evaluation specialist at the Islamic Development Bank and served as Chief of Staff at NEPAD AUDA.

Posted on Thursday, 2 April 2020 13:50, updated on Monday, 6 April 2020 19:16

Virus Outbreak South Africa
A worker sits at the entrance of a drive through testing station in Johannesburg, Monday, March 30, 2020 (AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed)

Last year, while looking ahead to the future of international relations, several global leaders wondered if “winter is coming”. Well, it has come. It’s the winter of coronavirus. At a time where regional and global solidarity should be the norm, it is the exception. This crisis calls for more (and better) multilateralism; not less. The crucial issue at stake is the state of our global health system.

When COVID-19 started in China, most leaders and citizens living outside Asia did not take it seriously. It was so far away. Some even questioned the measures used by China to contain the spread of the virus.

But in a few weeks, the disease went viral and the WHO called it a pandemic on 11 March.

Sharing is caring

Since then, we have seen most countries around the world take severe measures of containment. Most of them did so unilaterally. Borders are now closed; countries are in lockdown and are competing with each other in researching COVID-19.

This means that sources for health need to be pooled together. Research should be shared; not confined to individual countries or regions.

Ahead of the pandemic, the worrying state of the global health system was apparent. For example, if we look at the number of hospital beds per 1,000 populations (one indicator of health), the average across the EU fell from 8 beds to 5.6 over the period 1990-2013.

On a more global scale, based on the latest OECD data, bed availability per 1,000 inhabitants  overall was 4.3 in 2017 vs 2.5 for UK, 3.2 for Italy, 8 for Germany and 12.3 for Korea. In the case of the US, the figure was 2.8 in 2016.

This data is crucial to measuring the strength and equity of national health systems to enable all people to live healthy lives. However, data availability remains a big challenge, particularly in low-income countries and resilience is difficult to measure accurately, let alone address holistically.

READ MORE: Exclusive – UN’s Antonio Guterres: “In the face of the pandemic, a moratorium on African debt is necessary”.

COVID-19 impact beyond health

The impact of the pandemic on the global economy, particularly on jobs will be tremendous.

The International Labor Organization  (ILO) predicts that COVID-19 will cost about 25 million jobs.

ILO is calling for urgent, large-scale and coordinated measures to stimulate the economy and employment, protect workers in the workplace, and support jobs and incomes. Low-income countries experiencing debt distress are also at high risk.

The IMF said the outlook for global growth will be negative in 2020. Investors have already withdrawn $83bn from emerging markets since the beginning of the crisis.

As a result, the IMF has announced it was ready to deploy all its $1tn lending capacity. Last week, the World Bank Group (WBG) announced a $14bn package to assist countries and private sectors to minimize the financial effects of COVID-19 and help strengthen national health systems.

This timely and much-needed support packages are indeed critical.

However, we need to go a bit further.

The issue here is how to best (re)build these systems through better and more coordinated global health architecture.

COVID-19, like Ebola before, calls for an immediate response (this is a given).

It is our anxiety, our impatience, which does the mischief, and most men die of their remedies, and not of their diseases

But in addition to the underlying questions of such a crisis, such as  ‘what needs to be done’ and ‘how to address this challenge’, there also needs to be better early warnings, data collection and monitoring systems for enhanced global disease surveillance and detection capacities as well as supporting countries, particularly the fragile ones, to enhance financing for health with a view to protect global health security.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Africa: opportunity to reshape development

Governments and International Organisations must address the global picture

It is recommended to wash hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We see leaders joining WHO’s ‘Safe Hands’ campaign.

At the same time, in more than 40 countries, less than half of the population have basic handwashing facilities with soap and water in their homes. Most of those countries are concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The rapid spread of the virus illustrates how global our economy has become.

It is also shining a light on the inequalities not only among countries but also among citizens.

In 2015, 736 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day. According to the World Social Report 2020 , two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where inequality has grown.

The report highlights that in unequal societies, where there are wide disparities in areas such as health care and education, people are more likely to remain trapped in poverty, across several generations.

It is critical to level the playing field when addressing a health crisis and develop strategies that enhance the resilience of the poor and vulnerable populations – particularly women and children who continue to pay the highest price.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Algeria: A country’s last warning

Multilateralism needed to fight global threats

During the plague outbreak, in 1665, Sir Isaac Newton, while “telecommuting” next to an apple tree unlocked what is called the first law of motion. It is time for global leaders and thinkers to set a new motion for a more coordinated, effective and inclusive multilateral global health system that will not only address health targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals but also respond to new pandemics.

This crisis reminds us that, at the end of the day, the most important fight is the one for humanity and human development.

Bottom line:  At the end of the day, let us be reminded of the words of Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere in the Imaginary Invalid:  “It is our anxiety, our impatience, which does the mischief, and most men die of their remedies, and not of their diseases”.

It is time to be daring. It is time to make multilateralism great again.

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