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COVID-19: New Directions for Global Governance?


As the world finds itself engulfed in a viral pandemic, with devastating consequences far beyond public health, the need for effective global governance has never been greater. Yet, by most accounts, the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has failed to infuse a heightened sense of collective responsibility, solidarity, and purpose. The global response to the pandemic has been slow and fragmented, revealing a lack of coordination capacity on the multilateral level, which has been further undermined by US-China friction and a retreat to inward-looking policies, including attempts by powerful countries to hoard drugs and protective gear. There is the possibility that, by bringing global governance deficits into sharp relief, COVID-19 could inspire new thinking in terms of how we respond to future challenges, above all the risk of climate catastrophe and environmental breakdown. However, in the absence of decisive leadership, it seems more likely that the pandemic will entrench and exacerbate long-standing trends of stagnation, fracture, and dysfunction in global governance. 

It is important to emphasise that COVID-19 is not a “black swan” event. Just three months before the outbreak of the virus in China first made headlines, a report by the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Global Preparedness Monitoring Board warned that “[t]he world is at acute risk for devastating regional or global disease epidemics or pandemics that not only cause loss of life but upend economies and create social chaos.” Experts have long sounded alarm bells over a surge in zoonotic diseases that jump from animal to human populations, driven by agricultural intensification, deforestation, environmental change, and other sources of biodiversity destruction. The experience with recent zoonotic health emergencies – including coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS – should have resulted in greater global preparedness (see also the GLOBE blog by Borges de Castro & Schmitt, 2020)

Beyond a lack of foresight, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed deeper structural weaknesses in global health governance. The WHO has struggled to provide a central coordinating function during the pandemic given long-standing internal challenges – chronic underfunding, competing donor demands, limited authority, an ambiguous mandate, and a bloated bureaucracy – and an extremely difficult political environment, characterised by growing polarisation, great power rivalry, and the deliberate spreading of misinformation. This is playing out against the backdrop of a fragmented global health landscape, which has seen the emergence of a patchwork of new, often private, actors, many of which enjoy more financial resources than the WHO. US withdrawal from the WHO has dealt a further blow to the prospect of more integrated global health governance.

Growing distrust among countries and towards global governance institutions could also undermine the reciprocal value of the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR) and their effectiveness in tackling future outbreaks. As a legally binding but non-enforceable instrument for addressing disease outbreaks with cross-border implications, the IHR crucially depend on the willingness of WHO member states to build up domestic surveillance capacities and share relevant information rapidly with the WHO. Intense politicisation of COVID-19 has marred collaboration under the IHR, from the controversy surrounding China’s early response to the difficulty of agreeing on an appropriate level of alert.

Beyond the inadequacy of current governance structures for global health, the COVID-19 crisis has powerfully demonstrated the fragility of our interconnected world, where a sudden shock can have unexpected ripple effects throughout the system. The pandemic and subsequent government responses, including lockdowns and social distancing measures, have changed how we live, work, learn, consume, travel, and communicate, with profound implications for the global economy and other governance domains as well as the structures that underpin them. Global, regional, national, and local response strategies must take into account complex dynamics, with attempts at “solution” often creating novel problems. The temporary breakdown of face-to-face diplomacy has made it even harder to agree on joint approaches as virtual platforms are unlikely to generate the same level of trust between interacting parties.

As such, the COVID-19 crisis raises serious questions about how we do global governance. There is certainly scope for reform of existing instruments. For example, a revision of the IHR could enhance trust and facilitate collaboration by increasing procedural transparency and establishing a more nuanced approach to risk assessment. Yet, effective implementation of the IHR and other targeted governance frameworks will continue to hinge on the stability of wider global governance structures, which in turn depends crucially on whether they are seen as legitimate or not. In this context, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for anew model for global governance (…) based on full, inclusive and equal participation in global institutions.” However, creative thinking on what exactly this could look like is scarce and political leadership is even scarcer, especially as the US – the very country that spearheaded the construction of the post-war multilateral order – is retreating from its global responsibilities.

Above all, the pandemic has put the spotlight on the severe consequences of intensified human encroachment on the environment and natural habitats. To make human and non-human systems more resilient to future shocks, economic recovery must be tied to ecological and climate recovery, in a way that does not simply put a green sheen on business-as-usual interventions but fundamentally divests away from extractive capitalism. Building broad support for delivering this transition, and doing so in a way that does not entrench and deepen existing inequalities, will be a major governance challenge going forward. It will require systemic reflection and careful, critical application of interdisciplinary expertise. In the health space, this type of thinking has already informed the emergence of new holistic and multisectoral global agendas, such as “Planetary Health” or “One Health”, that link human wellbeing to the health of animals and ecosystems. Though still in their infancy, these approaches are increasingly recognised as vital not just for tackling new zoonotic diseases but also other emerging and potentially catastrophic health threats, such as antimicrobial resistance (AMR).  

Moving towards truly systemic thinking in global governance research and practice requires us to think hard about a number of interrelated questions: How can we make sense of and communicate complex risks? Who decides what gets prioritised? Can we (re-)build trust in global governance institutions? What role for non-state actors and mechanisms? Can we harness the power of new technologies while minimising their negative impact on the social fabric of our communities? How can we conduct policy experiments without threating system stability? In this context, we must also pay more attention to domestic dynamics. Significant differences in the performance of national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted, among other things, the enduring relevance of state capacity for implementing global norms and recommendations. Realising ambitious governance agendas will require broad support from domestic constituencies. More than top-down and reactionary pandemic crisis management, we need global governance frameworks that enable the strengthening of national and local health systems. Ultimately, we need to develop a shared understanding that, in an increasingly complex and interconnected world, catastrophic risks cannot be successfully addressed anywhere unless they are addressed everywhere.

Julia Kreienkamp is a Research Assistant at the Global Governance Institute, University College London (UCL).

Want to learn more about the implications of the pandemic for global governance research and practice? Watch the GLOBE panel discussion on “What is Global Governance in the time of COVID-19?”, featuring experts from Asia, Latin America, and Europe.