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24 March 2020

The international community failed badly on coronavirus – urgent lessons must be learned

The unedifying exercise in blame-shifting and buck-passing over Covid-19 must never be repeated. 

By Emily Thornberry

In December 2004, a UN staffer gave a low-key presentation in Buenos Aires, previewing the upcoming Kobe conference on international disaster reduction. “He briefly outlined its thematic areas,” the minutes record. Last in his list of eight was “early warning”.

Within days, more than 230,000 people were killed by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Their “early warning” consisted of seeing the waves approaching, by which time – for the vast majority – it was too late.

In his message to the Kobe conference three weeks later, Kofi Annan said: “We must draw and act on every lesson we can, and prevent such tragedies…occurring in the future.”

Doubtless, when the waters of the coronavirus outbreak recede, we will hear the same entreaties to learn from the experience. But it should be a chastening exercise for the world leaders and multilateral institutions involved.

After all, from its outset, this crisis has been compounded by the total absence of global leadership or a coordinated international response. Most glaring have been the wildly varying and rapidly shifting policies applied by different governments, from testing and travel bans to school closures and self-isolation, with no attempt to establish common standards, let alone implement pre-existing “best practice” protocols, leaving every country trying to learn in real time from each other’s experiences and experiments.

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Equally stark, instead of the international community immediately pooling its expertise and working together to develop a vaccine and a cure for coronavirus, we have again seen individual countries, and private companies within them, operating in isolation as though engaged in some kind of competition. 

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These are the kind of actions and decisions we might expect to have seen quickly coordinated and agreed through gatherings of global leaders at the G7, G20 or UN, even if simply through Skype, but again, such coordination has been conspicuous only by its absence.

In its place, we have seen an unedifying exercise in blame-shifting and buck-passing, whether it’s the war of words between the US and China over the origin of the virus, or our own government stubbornly insisting that responsibility for British nationals stranded abroad lies with their hosts.

In short, if we were drawing lessons from the collective international effort to tackle this outbreak, the best we could say so far is that there hasn’t been one, while the worst we might say is that what we’ve seen has been actively unhelpful.

In theory, however, that should make it easier to follow the other half of Annan’s entreaty: to heed the lessons from this crisis; and take action to prevent its repetition, whether through the emergence of another new virus, or the recurrence of Covid-19.

Indeed, subject to the views of health experts, it strikes me that there are five changes we should automatically consider. First, we must tighten the reporting demands on countries dealing with outbreaks, which – judging by the ease with which China appears to have circumvented them on this occasion – clearly lack the teeth to operate effectively when they are most required.

Second, we must attempt to agree clear international protocols or best practice across the full range of actions taken in different countries to curb the spread of infection, and seek to ensure these are uniformly applied across all countries.

Third and similarly, we must agree joint mechanisms and a coordinated global effort to guide the development, testing and roll-out of potential cures and vaccines, ideally with one dedicated body given responsibility for leading this work.

Fourth, we must establish a standing arrangements committee so that a “virtual G20” can be convened with minimal preparation and delay, with world leaders examining the expert medical analysis, and taking resulting decisions together, in real time.

And finally, we must institute an “early-warning system” to alert all the responsible authorities to reports of any new or recurrent viral outbreaks, so that immediate steps can be taken to assess their significance and agree any coordinated action required.

It seems fairly clear that we would have handled the coronavirus outbreak better from the outset if even these five measures had been in place, which tells its own tale about the lack of coordination in this area, and how urgently that failure needs putting right in the future.

That was the lesson from the 2004 tsunami. The scheduling of the Kobe conference so soon afterwards may have been a tragic coincidence, but those attending did not waste the opportunity, or indeed the obligation, it handed them.

They immediately agreed to build the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System in response to the disaster, and it became active 18 months later, almost a full six decades after its US-funded Pacific counterpart. 

For our generation, coronavirus is the equivalent of that urgent call to action, that powerful demand for global leadership, and that indisputable case for international coordination. We have no choice but to listen, and act.