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09 April 2020

We don't have the right global system to tackle coronavirus

Oliver Letwin

OLIVER LETWIN: The virus is unified. The response of humanity is not

international bodies

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it should at least have taught us that humanity has every reason to cooperate.

On an outing as a child to the London Planetarium, I first discovered that the time would come (admittedly rather a long time) when planet earth would be swallowed up by the sun. I remember thinking, on my way home on the bus, that replicating the whole of human civilisation in some other galaxy sounded like a rather big technological challenge – at least to my childish ears – and that this made what was then known as  the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union seem rather irrelevant. The race that seemed to matter was the race of human beings against the expansion of the sun.

Nothing in my adult life has persuaded me otherwise. Today’s great challenges – climate change, artificial intelligence, food and water security, disease – are challenges for all of us. Humanity is on one side; time, nature and machinery on the other. If we want to defeat viruses or preserve the quality of human life, we can’t expect to do so effectively as a set of warring or jarring nations. Our chances of success are directly related to our capacity for cooperation.

And this, of course, is as true of Covid-19 as it is of anything. Despite President Trump absurdly calling it “Chinese”, there is no reason to suppose that the virus harbours any nationalistic sentiment. In its primeval (and, to date, horribly successful) struggle for survival, this enemy of mankind makes light of national boundaries. It does not differentiate between political systems.

So the rational response for human beings is to work together to defeat it.

But – and here’s the rub – in the supposedly awesome array of institutions that constitute the so-called “international rules-based order”, we don’t have an institution or system capable of bringing together the whole world in a prompt, coordinated and effective response. Yes, the World Health Organisation exists. But it is not what it says on the tin. It has not been given the powers or the capabilities to organise the world into a consistent defence of human health. The virus is unified. The response of humanity is not.

How can we hope to do better in the future? What kind of organisation do we need to build if we genuinely want to defend the world’s health, together? And what kind of relationships must such an organisation have with the nation-states that currently have so strong a tendency to go solo?

If these were easy questions to answer, a satisfactory answer would have been given long ago. There are all sorts of genuine difficulties to be overcome. Nation-states are reluctant to do anything that can be characterised by the nationalists and the populists as “ceding control” to an international body. The rich nations worry about the risk of being forced to pay for measures on which the poorer nations can get a “free ride”. The poorer nations worry about the risk of having foisted upon them by the rich nations some set of measures that don’t fit with their social or political cultures.

But the fact that these difficulties are genuine does not mean that they are insurmountable. And surmount them we must, if we are to achieve rational cooperation in the face of a common enemy. Two recent examples show very clearly what can be achieved.

When Ebola struck in West Africa some years back, it became clear that the regional structure of the WHO, and the inability of its central headquarters in Geneva to mobilise funds and teams, was part of the cause of the delayed response. Following that episode, much was done to improve the position – not least, indeed mainly, through the untiring efforts of Dame Sally Davies who was then the UK’s Chief Medical Officer.

Likewise, mainly through the efforts of Dame Sally and Lord Jim O’Neill, a global strategy for tackling antimicrobial resistance has been formulated. There are real signs that the world as a whole is cooperating to prevent the threatened collapse of the antibiotic protections that have so dramatically changed life chances for the whole of humanity since the time of Sir Alexander Fleming. 

These inspiring examples of the UK leading the way in forging new levels of international cooperation to fight disease demonstrate that, despite the difficulties, we can improve on the present position – and that the UK can play a major role in making that happen.

A good start would be to use the forthcoming G20 to establish a new international body to conduct virus surveillance and control. This would obviously fall far short of full-scale reform of the whole structure of the WHO. But it would be much easier and faster to achieve.

The new body could be set up as an independent trust of some kind, and thereby be entirely removed from the clunky and highly politicised assembly that governs the WHO. It would complement Gavi, which administers vaccines, and the recently established arrangements for international sponsorship of the development of vaccines. Its role would be to identify very quickly what viruses were on the way, and work out quickly an entire game-plan for controlling them – drawing, no doubt, on the most advanced techniques already being employed in places like Singapore.

A subsidiary benefit of such a move would be the reinforcement of the G20 itself – which is the one international body that brings together all of the nation-states that really determine the fate of our multi-polar world. Unlike the UN Security Council (which lacks permanent representation from India, Japan and the other major emerging powers), the G20 has no official standing; amazingly, it still lacks even the secretariat that Gordon Brown very sensibly tried to obtain for it after the 2008 crash.

Perhaps a silver lining to the dark clouds of this crisis might be not only an improved and depoliticised international system for virus surveillance and control, but also a further step towards giving the G20 the role it needs to have if we are to achieve global cooperation in the face of global threats.

The Rt Hon Sir Oliver Letwin was Minister for Government Policy in the Cabinet Office from 2010 to 2016, and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from 2014 to 2016. He also served as Conservative MP for West Dorset from 1997 to 2019.

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