Economies, travel, healthcare systems, communities and lives are not the only wreckage that COVID-19 is leaving in its wake. Predictably, the virus has begun to exacerbate cracks in the existing international multilateral system that underpins much of our global and regional architectures and mechanisms.

Some of this can be attributed to systemic flaws underpinning the international system. But it is the action – or lack thereof by political leaders, elected or otherwise – that have aggravated these fissures. There should have been decisive, reassuring leadership, and international cooperation for a cohesive, integrated response. Instead, we got impositions of sudden unilateral travel bans without consultations, denials on the severity of the situation against mounting evidence to the contrary, a lack of any clear strategy or communication plan to manage both the outbreak and the resulting inevitable social panic, and dog whistling to deflect blame.

Worryingly, the two global powers that hold much sway over the global architecture are falling short of the responsibilities that come with their position.

The Trump administration’s handling of this health crisis thus far, both at home and abroad, is a total and utter mess. The insistence of the President and his political allies to blame China for their policy missteps is both disturbing and troubling. A decentralised and profit-oriented health system without universal coverage has left many Americans, especially those who cannot afford it, extremely vulnerable. The report on the Administration attempting to secure exclusive rights to a potential coronavirus vaccine by a German pharmaceutical company will surely be one of the more sordid highlights of this still ongoing saga.

China is basking in praise for its strict containment and whole-of-society approach in fighting the virus, along with its ability to quickly and publicly deliver aid to other affected countries. However, it also seems to be engaged in another equally concentrated whole-of-society approach to blame some nefarious American plot as the cause of the virus. Nevermind that it was the sheer opacity of China’s governance system that caused the virus to spread until it couldn’t be covered up anymore. Or that punitive measures were taken against whistle-blowers. Or that one of the reasons it can afford to now distribute aid is that it bought up vast amounts of medical stockpiles at the start of the outbreak, depleting them from other countries when the outbreak eventually reached their shores.     

Regional organisations too are having a tough go at it.

The European Union (EU) is scrambling to come up with a joint response to COVID-19 as it finds itself in the frontlines of the fight. Previous attempts bore little fruit as members continued to enforce their own measures, often with little consultation with each other. Enforced curfews and quarantines are in place in the worst hit countries, while some members are reintroducing ID-checks inside the Schengen Area.

While it is premature to claim that the EU and regional solidarity will be frayed beyond repair because of this crisis, it certainly does not make things easier. Careful management of bilateral relations and aid is necessary. Once this pandemic subsides, those seeking to ride populist sentiments will try and capitalise on the severe trauma that it has inflicted. Would we see another resurgence in popular support for the Eurosceptic Lega Nord in Italy, for example, which is facing huge numbers of infections and deaths, and whose initial desperate calls for aid was largely ignored by its EU partners?

Here in Southeast Asia, ASEAN Member States have been working remotely with each other, sharing updated information on surveillance and containment, laboratory diagnosis and treatments. There have also been exchanges on disruptive travel restrictions and non-pharmaceutical interventions. Nevertheless, there has yet to be any public cohesive strategy to manage this pandemic, and responses at the regional level seem to be more reactionary rather than proactive.

Certainly, there are multiple ASEAN ministerial and senior official mechanisms in place – disaster management, health, labour movement, and the Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance – which can be comprehensively mobilised. Even the relatively obscure Cooperation on Civil Service Matters platform has a role here.

Nationally, some countries in the region are clearly doing better than others. But as epidemiologists have emphasised, unless there is a concentrated regional effort to contain and minimise the spread of this virus, national efforts might ultimately count for naught.

Once this pandemic has passed, there needs to be a thorough post-mortem of what worked and what didn’t at all levels – national, regional and international – to prepare for the next global crisis. Not just in terms of managing the pandemic, but also its impact on international and regional mechanisms, architectures and systems, and how they reacted.

To allow such an opportunity to take a long hard and honest look at ourselves to pass us by after all this, would be not only irresponsible and criminal, but possibly suicidal.

This article first appeared in New Straits Times on 25 March 2020

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