Optimistic projections indicate that if we hold the line on the Covid-19 pandemic, the worst should be behind us by later this year. With several research groups across the world racing to shrink timelines towards effective vaccines and treatments, many hope we would soon be back to business as usual. That would be a mistake.
The pandemic has revealed several institutional gaps at national and sub-national levels, and different countries are trying to close them. I will concentrate on the inadequacies of the global institutional framework that are obvious today and try to indicate some directions along which the next phase of international relations should be explored. Existing organisations, especially the UN and Bretton Woods institutions, reflect the challenges at the end of World War II. They were set up to address international governance, development knowledge and capital deficits. While catalysing impressive growth, they have largely failed to mitigate negative externalities like widening wealth and income gaps, degradation in the quality of air and water, and global warming. Many problems have been worsening for decades and have now reached a tipping point.
The WHO is the most important multilateral organisation at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19. However, just when it needs more resources and authority, there is an effort to deprive it of both. The organisation needs to be strengthened politically and financially to enable it to discharge its mandate. Other global institutions like the UN have been in need of reform for some time now, but there are no meaningful attempts to move them out of human conflict resolution into other equally pressing conflicts.
It is important to realise that Covid-19 is not the only challenge that we face. The Global Virome Project (GVP), launched in Bellagio, Italy, in 2016 with the aim of identifying 99% of viral threats to humanity within the next 10 years, estimated that there are about 7,00,000 viruses out there capable of causing pandemics. The implications of GVP’s work were largely ignored by policymakers. It is now clear that the threat of pandemics would be far from curtailed even after Covid. Such projects need liberal funding and greater state support. The present pandemic has also underlined the geographically concentrated production of health-related products. The World Bank Group can play an important role in creating the necessary testing, treatment and manufacturing facilities at regional and national levels through their Technical Assistance and Project Finance. As per the WTO, there is room for further liberalisation in tariffs on medical products in Regional Trade Agreements. These steps need to be taken urgently and concurrently to ensure that the global community does not rely upon ad hoc responses.
Neither are widespread diseases the sole reason for fixing the international system. Global warming remains a burning concern about which international deliberations have been a strange mix of rigorous scientific research and denialism. Changing weather patterns threaten chronic water shortages, which can precipitate the collapse of ecosystems and distress migrations on a scale never before seen in human history. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2016, is a suboptimal response to an existential threat. If resource exploitation returns to default levels after the epidemic, distribution of resources between rich and poor nations would become even more unequal, as well as worsen the climate.
Given this scenario, India is well placed to build a coalition to nudge the global community towards ecologically responsible choices. Economic loss for failing to act is enormous. By the year 2100, business as usual would impose a damage of $551 trillion—a quarter of the projected global GDP—at 3.7°C of warming. Objectives such as a decarbonised economy, a perfectly renewable energy system, reimagined agriculture and perhaps a meatless planet need global cooperation on an unprecedented scale that will need a complete overhaul of international organisations and diplomatic alignments. International legal agreements have to take into account liability of nations and other entities for origin and dissemination of disease and pollution, and develop commonly agreed upon mechanisms to address liable actions and failure to act in these areas.
As seen during the Covid-19 outbreak, any crisis quickly pushes migrant workers to the margins of their adoptive communities. As per the ILO’s estimates, there are 258 million international migrants, of which 164 million are migrant labour. Individual countries have had to take belated steps to rescue such workers, whereas under an established international protocol, their safety and livelihood would have been ensured wherever they were. The international community needs to establish a framework to ensure that employment protection, healthcare and options to return home are available to them. This will be an uphill task as it can also stoke anti-immigration and protectionist sentiments.
Rising incomes are an assured protection against disease and hardship. Raising all-round GDP in the hope of increasing incomes down the line will not comprehensively address emerging global threats in the absence of renewable energy and ways of production, distribution and consumption of goods. Universal basic income provides an immediate solution while fundamental structural fixes are being negotiated. Global support for the idea is much stronger now, including from several recent economics Nobel laureates. The UN, building on a 2017 report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights on the subject, should push for declaring universal basic income as a human right.
Reinventing international relations and organisations to make them centred on global challenges, rather than merely on transaction of goods and services, would ensure their relevance to emerging needs. A much larger portion of global GDP would have to be set aside to mitigate these risks. Of course, nations have much work to do, too, but aligning national and international goals and strategies is likely to yield much more enduring results.