The cure for COVID-19, and so much more, is global cooperation

The King Canute-like illusion that countries can hunker down within their borders and turn their backs on global coordination and common action has been shattered once again — this time by a small and deadly coronavirus. This tiny molecule has shaken the world’s largest nations, societies and markets, and perhaps serves as a wakeup call for those who dismiss the need for greater global collaboration.  

The future course of this virus is still, in many ways, frustratingly unpredictable to the many physicians and scientists around the world searching for a cure and vaccine

It was originally seen in the U.S. as a China problem; to most Americans it was something “over there.” Several pundits seemed to take an odd pleasure in the difficulties the Chinese government originally had in containing it. Well, now it is “over here” and it appears that the U.S. is not fully prepared to contain it, either, if it starts to spread to our communities. Initially confusing and politically charged statements coming out of Washington were hardly reassuring. 

Yet, the bigger issue is that this urgent global threat, and the difficulty individual nations have had in addressing it, dispels the illusion that global collaboration in this or many other areas can be reduced or shunned. In fact, it is more important than ever. We may be able to reverse or slow increases in world trade for a time through tariffs, but not of global viruses, global environmental dangers, global financial crises or the global spread of malevolent ideologies and cyber threats. 

The way the world deals with this virus not only can wake us up to this reality but also provide a prototype for collaboration in other areas. In early January, Chinese scientists provided the genetic sequencing, or code, of the new virus to other scientists around the world, enabling them to begin work on diagnostic kits, the quest for cures and the search for a vaccine. The Chinese received advice and various drugs used to treat similar viruses from many other nations, including the U.S. 

A large pool of global scientists and doctors shared data, observations and experience across borders with the aim of a medical breakthrough to halt the disease and save lives. Governments, for the most part, despite moments of political accusations and prematurely reassuring rhetoric, turned to their scientific communities and provided greater public visibility and support for their scientists. The problem was too serious not to do so.  

Yet, governments and national leaders still have a major — but certainly not a partisan — role to play: providing experts in this field with resources, legislative and political support, and the intergovernmental collaboration needed to implement the urgent measures required.

There is much to be learned here for the current crisis and for the longer term in a multitude of other areas. There are pools of experts — scientists, doctors. engineers, humanitarians, financial professionals — who see problems not in a partisan political context (which frequently is infused with misinformation or incomplete information) or within the constraints of national borders (which limits the number of minds and experience being brought to bear on the problem) but in global terms and as urgent challenges to lives and societies across the world. For example, cooperation between Chinese and American doctors and scientists is essential; “decoupling” most definitely is not an option here. And experts from other countries also must be engaged, as must the World Health Organization (WHO), which plays a critical role. This requires global cooperation at its most intense and urgent.

If the centerpiece of the 21st century version of globalization encouraged and elevated such collective endeavors to deal with this virus and similar challenges in a systematic way — and if it gave greater visibility and weight in our respective political systems and public discourse to scientists, researchers, engineers and other experts with deep knowledge of global challenges — then the credibility of the global order would be enhanced. So would the stature of political leaders who recognized that their own credibility would be enhanced.  

Genuine solutions to the formidable challenges of this century — rather than political rhetoric and gestures, or often-hollow international communiques, that are turning off many citizens to their own political systems and the international order — would more likely emerge. 

Robert D. Hormats, managing director of Tiedemann Advisors, was undersecretary of State for economic growth, energy and the environment, 2009-13; assistant secretary of State, 1981-82, and a former ambassador and deputy U.S. trade representative, 1979-81. As senior economics adviser to three White House national security advisers from 1969 to 1977, he helped to oversee the U.S. opening to China. Follow him on Twitter @BobHormats.

Tags Border barriers Coronavirus COVID-19 Diplomacy Globalization Pandemic Science Vaccine

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