Could COVID-19 Further Endanger Multilateralism?

30 Apr, 2020    ·   5682

Dr Seema Joshi argues that the political dynamics unleashed by the pandemic will negatively impact globalism unless corrective measures are implemented

The COVID-19 crisis brings to light three indicators that could pose more risks to multilateralism: a lack of accountability from global powers as well as international institutions, rising nationalism, and an absence of coordinated responses. If anything, this crisis shows us that while that we need more globalism, the political dynamics unleashed by it will see less—unless corrective measures are considered and implemented.

Accountability and Irresponsible Leadership

China’s inordinate delay in sharing information with the international community has wreaked havoc globally. The lack of early travel restrictions despite Chinese awareness of COVID-19’s contagiousness allowed the virus to spread quickly. It has now been detected in over 200 across the world.

Several countries, such as the US, UK, Germany, and France, have raised questions about China’s role in triggering the pandemic. The lack of Chinese accountability so far has gone beyond health repercussions, and has, among others, incurred huge socio-economic costs, as is evident from the unprecedented reduction in economic activity, lost working hours, increasing informalisation of the workforce, rising global unemployment, as well as the outbreak’s gendered impact.

Chinese negligence and culpability in the onset of this crisis is clear. However, an independent analysis would be amiss if it did not also consider instances of irresponsible leadership displayed in all stages of the pandemic, particularly by important global players.

US President Donald Trump’s approach in a case-in-point. He has compared this deadly virus to a flu, made initial public comments about his lack of concern because everything was “under control,” dismissed the virus as a Democrat “hoax,” and, a few months before the outbreak, eliminated a key US public health position in Beijing set up to help detect disease outbreaks in the country. Through these actions, President Trump initially underappreciated and misrepresented, and has since completely politicised, the biggest crisis the world has seen since the Second World War.

There is also the question of the mismanagement, and effective Chinese ‘takeover’ of the World Health Organisation (WHO)—a multibillion-dollar international agency mandated to “provide global leadership on health matters.” Despite this pandemic being the sixth global emergency declared by WHO since 2009, the organisation does not appear to have had any solid strategy already in place to respond to crises like these.

Rising Nationalism

Another major fallout is the reinforcement of nationalism on a stage that was already beginning to show signs of weakening globalism and multilateralism. Anti-China and anti-Asian sentiments were an early indicator. Since then, the pandemic has necessarily motivated leaders—even those heavily invested in globalism—to swiftly secure their own countries and peoples first.

One example is German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to “ban most exports of protective medical equipment.” Mr Trump offered to fund Cure Vac AG, a German bio tech company, to develop a COVID-19 vaccine “exclusively for the United States.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison advised international visitors “go home” so Australia could “maximise” its own “economic supports.”

In some countries governed by conservative leaders, moves have been made to consolidate further power. These developments that have occurred in response to COVID-19 will have consequences for a post-pandemic world.

Lack of Response Coordination 

When a health crisis involves communicable diseases that make national boundaries irrelevant, there is a requirement for multilateral responses. However, most reactions so far have been local or national in nature.

Some countries have opted for partial lockdowns (Sweden); others for a complete lockdown (India). Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have adopted non-pharmaceutical initiatives, including social distancing and travel restrictions. Some have declared an emergency (Japan), and China, which is now apparently emerging out of the crisis, is relaxing restrictions and claiming normalcy. Even countries like Italy and Spain that are part of an established bloc, have for the most part addressed the crisis individually, despite the EU technically being a union of states.

National measures are crucial—that is a given. However, coordinated regional and global responses are equally important. Both, in fact, must work in tandem. No attempt has so far been made by the so-called major powers to seek cooperation after the onset of the virus. India’s call for a joint SAARC mechanism was an early exception. The G20 statement followed much later, and it remains to be seen if word will be matched with deed. Indeed, the US has decided to defund the WHO till its Congressional investigation into WHO’s management of the pandemic is through.


COVID-19 has triggered and exacerbated a cross-cutting range of challenges. Among others, it opens up disadvantaged people and groups to further vulnerabilities. In this light, the relevance of international bodies like the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) and WHO become even more central. A serious rethink on formulating disaster management and response strategies with collective global leadership is in order. The current interest as well as preparedness are both inadequate, as is the idea of a ‘global community’.

The irony is that it is exactly when the world needed more globalism—not less—that this pandemic seems to have exacerbated the decline of multilateralism. To be fair, there are several underlying issues involved, including the need to protect local jobs from predatory pricing engaged in by economies like China, and the lack of transparency and accountability in several global organisations, most notably the WHO. However, the solution to this lies in reforming those bodies and putting in place targeted measures against rule-breaker states.

Dr Seema Joshi is Associate Professor of Economics with the Department of Commerce, Kirori Mal College, Delhi University.