Pandemic as global emergency

Pandemic as global emergency

The treaty idea is worthy of being considered by the international community for COVID-19

A number of important leaders, principally from Europe but other regions of the globe too, have come together to propose an international treaty "for pandemic preparedness and response". These leaders include the heads of states or governments of France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Britain, the Netherlands and Norway. Among non-European leaders are those of South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Fiji and some African countries such as Kenya and Senegal. The initiative clearly has Europe at its core. Significantly non-European major powers including the US, Russia, China and India are not part of the initiative, at least, as yet

In a joint article carried by some well-known media outlets in different parts of the world the leaders asserted that the international community must brace itself for global health emergencies and pandemics in the future too and that no country can meet their challenges by itself. Hence, the way ahead was to prevent them as far as possible and to tackle them when they occur; both would require multilateral efforts.

These leaders also urged that international endeavours to prevent and handle pandemics should be based on the principle of universal and equitable access to medical goods and also vaccines "for this and future pandemics". They noted that "nobody is safe unless everyone is safe". This premise inevitably means that the international community should adopt inclusive approaches in the area of human health but specifically in relation to pandemics.

The leaders also stated that the treaty should be "rooted in the constitution of the World Health Organisation". This would make it universal in scope. International Health Regulations and other global instruments should "underpin" the treaty; thereby ensuring that the treaty has a good foundation.

The treaty idea is worthy of being considered by the international community for COVID-19 has demonstrated the validity of the premises that undergird the proposal. Questions, however, remain:  is the present international situation propitious for such an idea to gain currency, and, more fundamentally does historical experience indicate that the principle of equity can be truly translated into reality.

The departure of Donald Trump from the US presidency and the coming in of Joe Biden has improved the prospects of multilateralism and the US may consider the proposal or its variant. That would be essential for the idea to move forward. The treaty idea will also have to get traction in China, India and Russia. Certainly, if China continues to be in the dock on its initial lack of transparency and adequate warnings when the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan it will have little incentive to endorse the treaty idea. The treaty will also involve a degree of intrusiveness to prevent the emergence of viruses. That will make it intrinsically wary for history shows that many pandemics origin can be traced to China.

The problem is that the recently released WHO technical experts report will not please China which has been implicitly suggesting that the virus may have originated outside the country even if it appeared there initially. Stung by earlier charges of going soft on China the WHO DG has indicated a closer scrutiny of the circumstances and exact place of origin of the virus for that would be important to prevent future coronavirus pandemics. China also bristles at the notion that it was tardy in alerting the world about the virus when it emerged there.

The proposers of the treaty idea will now no doubt push it. A round of diplomatic activity, some quietly behind the scenes and some open, will now take place. Should the idea develop legs and go further taking Chinese sensitivities into account and reconciling the interests of all states many of which follow fundamentally different health systems how will it seek to operationalise the principle of equity for all countries and peoples? Indeed, this is the principle on which the world order is based in theory after the second world war. The problem is of the wide gulf which exists between theory and practice. For, in practice the contemporary world order is guided by considerations of power, as earlier international systems have been.

If this is the truth of the world then the outcome of an initiative to deal with pandemics, even if it becomes a treaty, would be no different from those on other global issues including climate change. Experience shows that all countries seek to secure and expand their interests even while lauding the principles of equality and sovereignty of all states, big or small. Climate change negotiations over the past three decades expose the hollowness of these propositions.

The leaders of the treaty initiative state "The COVID-19 is the biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s". It is true that it has had a shattering effect on lives and the economy in varying measures all over the world. It has the potential of greatly impacting on global power structures. The fact, however, is that climate change poses an existential threat to the planet and there is ever growing evidence of its impact. Yet, the advanced countries record is of effectively abandoning the principle of equity—the essential basis for tackling climate change– as soon as they perceived that their place in the world would be threatened if they continued to fully adhere to it.

Thus, even if an international instrument to enhance global cooperation for preventing and controlling pandemics comes about no country, including India, can ever ignore national efforts to prepare to meet health emergencies, even pandemics. That is the lesson of COVID-19.

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