COVID-19 has struck just when there is a real vacuum in global leadership, exacerbating its potential to take many more lives and inflict long-term economic dislocation. As the U.S. has retreated into quasi-isolation, the leadership role it played during the Ebola crisis, for example, is no longer on offer. While China has tried to assume this position, many countries are suspicious of its motives and methods, particularly as it relates to the current pandemic and its use of economic and diplomatic levers to achieve political ends. The ‘every country for itself’ approach that has characterized the response to COVID-19 has corroded trust in the legacy infrastructure designed to deal with these emergencies. U.S. claims that the World Health Organization has been dangerously naïve or at worst complicit in its relationship with China is a case in point. America’s withdrawal from this organization, including its funding, can only delay the ability of the WHO to evolve and resume its old position as the global champion dealing with major crises in human health.
That is why the virtual United Nations conference Prime Minister Trudeau recently co-hosted on responding to the COVID 19 pandemic is so important. Some will dismiss this as a diplomatic maneuver to boost Canada’s chances of acquiring a seat on the UN Security Council. Others will suggest it is a bleeding heart’s response to the tragedies unfolding in many of the world’s less-developed economies. But it is much more: it is the first serious attempt since the pandemic struck to recruit a coalition of willing nations to deal with the aftermath of the virus. Its terms of reference are broad, addressing not only economic recovery but potentially shaping the world for decades to come by emphasizing sustainability in reconstruction or setting new processes to ensure financial support is not siphoned off by local elites or criminal organizations.
And it draws in many more countries. Unlike past campaigns over the years that aimed to alleviate the suffering of a particular group like the unfortunates in Syria, South Sudan or Myanmar, or even an entire continent such as various debt and development initiatives in Africa, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is global. Many countries who may not be handling the crisis well, including Brazil, Indonesia, and India, feature huge populations that may require considerable support and resources over an extended period as they recover. Other nations that would not typically feature on lists of candidates for emergency relief will need some degree of help to get back on their feet. Consider travel and tourism. It may be no surprise that travel and tourism contribute between 40 and 60 percent of GDP in many Caribbean nations, but is also central to the economies of countries as diverse as Greece (18 percent), Thailand (close to 18 percent), and Portugal ( 17 percent). It would be a brave pundit who would predict the jobs lost or the economic devastation caused by the novel coronavirus in this sector will be fully recovered anytime soon.
The speed and degree of the devastation of the pandemic suggest a swift and effective global response could save thousands, possibly millions, of lives. This might be from a second or third wave of COVID-19 or the as-yet-unknown diseases certain to bedevil us in the years to come. A coordinated response across countries to save lives and mitigate the subsequent economic dislocation will reap dividends. It is an investment worth making.
Creating the necessary global consensus and architecture of cooperation is a role well suited to Canada’s international position and experience. The Canadian government should work towards these ends. Resisting the traditional temptations of limiting our leadership to pious rhetoric or committing to dollar objectives on a dime budget could determine whether Canada will be leaders or followers in shaping the direction of our shared future for decades to come. A country of Canada’s population and economic clout rarely has a chance to shape the global community. This is one such opportunity. We cannot afford to waste this crisis.
Douglas Kennedy is the RBC Managing Director of the Centre for Global Enterprise at the Schulich School of Business, York University.