The novel coronavirus is keeping the world in suspense. Infection rates are rising exponentially in many countries, and increasingly too in developing countries. The isolated and lock-down measures taken by numerous states are having a massive impact on virtually all areas of economic and social life. The measures go hand in hand with a growing sense of uncertainty and worries among the public.
Discussion is revolving around the difficulty of gauging all the impacts of the pandemic. However, we should see the corona crisis as an opportunity. If we learn from it and make use of the power of the momentum of the crisis, the pandemic will also offer unique opportunities for promoting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and for stepping up international cooperation.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 is devoted to the topics of health and well-being. The current crisis illustrates the value that sound health systems add to the other SDGs. Illness poses a risk to education, political participation, incomes and, by extension, people’s livelihoods. While health may not be everything, we have nothing without it. The international community has also explicitly committed itself in the SDGs to fighting infectious diseases such as AIDS and malaria, and in recent years has supported African states in managing Ebola outbreaks. Yet the goal of eradicating them by 2030 seems a distant dream. Of the 38 million or so individuals infected with HIV in recent years, 770,000 have still died annually (2018). And 405,000 of the 228 million people infected in the year 2018 with malaria have also died, most of them in Africa.
The current figures for the novel coronavirus (around 900,000 individuals infected and 46,000 deaths; 2 April 2020) may appear less dramatic by comparison. However, the unparalleled attention being given to the pandemic is a result of the particular perception of risk among society and policy-makers. This coronavirus is new to people, can be transmitted very quickly from person to person, is difficult to predict in terms of spread and disease progression, is fast developing as an outbreak event in Europe and easily overburdens even our healthcare systems. Unlike well-known and more predictable infectious diseases, which develop over long periods and at great geographic distances from Europe, the discourse on coronavirus also extends to national security, including this part of the world. It is this very kind of treatment of the issue by politics and society that could now act as a catalyst for necessary structural or institutional political reforms.
In the past, health crises requiring the most urgent action have served to accelerate innovation and structural change: The plague triggered the first international cooperation efforts in health. The need to control plagues also helped to create the modern state. When HIV/AIDS became a pandemic, people in the world’s most impoverished nations died without access to the lifesaving treatments that were in widespread use in wealthy nations for HIV/AIDS and many other infectious conditions. The controversy over this inequity transformed global health, elevating the issue as a foreign policy priority and helping to raise billions of dollars for researching, adapting, developing, and distributing new medicines. Also in the European Union, threats to health like BSE, SARS or Ebola have triggered structural adaptations in the area of infectious disease control, in the internal and external dimension of the EU’s engagement. In times of nationalist trends, we now need to set a course towards stable structures for international cooperation. The replenishment summit planned for 2020 by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which enables the world’s poorest countries to purchase vaccines at lower prices, is one such opportunity to do so.
The corona crisis shows once more the disastrous impact of weak health systems at the local and global level. The current threat is not the final one in this regard. More challenges are highly likely to follow if we do not respond to it adequately. It is an important task of development cooperation in the medium-term to strengthen those systems in fragile as well as middle-income countries by increasing e.g. the quantity and quality of health infrastructure, improving health policy, or promoting universal healthcare. Diseases are travelling at the speed of globalisation. The current crisis proves the vital importance to eliminate danger hotspots even in remote areas: For example, in sub-Saharan Africa and in Latin America, many people are at risk because of their weakened immune systems due to Tuberculosis, HIV, poverty and malnutrition. In addition, in many areas physical distancing is not realistic, including refugee camps in North Africa or Greece.
In this regard, the current crises can help to have a stronger focus on people often left behind. Germany and the EU should capitalise on the present momentum to underscore the value of multilateral platforms and of a functional system of the United Nations with a strong health focus. The corona threat shows that isolated measures by individual states are inadequate: Unilateral and protectionist actions can even have negative impact for the crisis management as a whole. Pandemic prevention and containment is a global public good, and its provision requires increased global coordination as well as adaptive, temporary, and coordinated decoupling. Cooperation can tackle cross-border health threats more effectively if well-known difficulties in coordination mechanisms, global governance and financing are addressed. The World Health Organization (WHO) should not become too dependent for its financing on contributions from non-governmental actors such as the Gates Foundation. In order to develop, stock and deploy vaccines, medication and medical supplies as quickly as possible, international organisations, states and the most capable suppliers need to work together for the common good, regardless of national loyalties. To this end, Germany could also employ the role it has already developed for itself in global health to strengthen global health cooperation during its forthcoming EU Presidency – for instance, to push for expansion of the competences of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
The corona crisis also uncovers the tremendous potential of digital platforms (online meetings, video conferences, etc.) for contributing to international cooperation in line with the objectives of the 2030 Agenda. Against the background of the climate crises, it has not been possible to date to shape mobility in such a way as to sufficiently reduce levels of emissions and pollutants. The current health emergency is now compelling companies and public-sector actors to switch rapidly to using modern communications solutions. More than a wake-up call, the crisis provides a reason and legitimacy for a profound transition, which is sometimes lacking in structures with strong path dependencies. In addition to the necessary infrastructure, this also requires a cultural shift to embrace new communication technologies and the establishment of good practice in cooperation in a virtual environment. In this way, initiatives for achieving the SDGs in the area of health and beyond would benefit ultimately from the corona crisis. Even if there is a prevailing sense of uncertainty and threat at present, the pandemic could ultimately benefit international and European cooperation more than it harms it.
Authors: Wulf Reiners (Political Scientist, DIE) and Paul Marschall (Economist, DIE).
Image courtesy of via Rawpixel Ltd Flickr.
The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.