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Coronavirus shows we need more international cooperation, not less

Coronavirus shows we need more international cooperation, not less

World leaders spent their spring teetering between isolationism and greater globalization in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This seesawing occasionally capsized into public view with dramatic effect: More than 100 countries, for example, recently backed Australia’s call at the World Health Organization (WHO) for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and its route from animals to humans. The Chinese government quickly dismissed the idea, framing it as an attempt to pin blame on the country. Stakeholders quickly fell into familiar fault lines on either side of the debate, and time’s arrow marched on with nothing to show for the flare-up.

Cooler heads have appropriately concluded that what the world needs now is greater international cooperation, not less. One starting point for this cooperation could be a good faith, forward-looking commitment that builds on the recent WHO debate without dooming it to the same result.

What’s needed now is a new standard for transparency that obligates any government in receipt of information that shows a credible danger to global public health to immediately report that information to the WHO. If governments fail to meet this standard, they should be subject to international and U.S. sanctions, as outlined in a new bill introduced by Senate and House Republicans.

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The global community must also come together to ensure that governments protect –not silence – citizens who bravely come forward with this information themselves.

The pandemic has brought into stark relief the need for governments around the world to disseminate accurate public health information on a timely basis, and to protect those citizens who choose to take this responsibility into their own hands by reporting the information themselves. Yet today, there is no international commitment or agreement obligating governments to either report such information or to protect citizens who do from retaliation, including by their own government.

Instead, the closest the world community has come to a global standard is the 2003 United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which requires its 187 member countries to merely “consider” adopting protections for these whistleblowers. And even then, the definition of “whistleblower,” the scope of any protections, and the overlap between the two, are entirely within the discretion of each country. 

The United States has been a leader on similar fronts before. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, President Obama signed into law a program that provides generous financial awards to whistleblowers, including foreign whistleblowers, who provide the Securities and Exchange Commission with information that results in a successful enforcement action. Just as this program incentivizes transparency and accountability in the corporate sector, the international community could fashion a similar program to incentivize transparency and accountability for global public health.

To be clear, stronger U.S. laws alone would not be enough. Not only does the U.S. government, and individual U.S. states, lack jurisdiction over other countries (as demonstrated by Missouri’s recent lawsuit against the Chinese government), but no single government could possibly police the global health community. Only an international, multilateral agreement – reached via the G20, G7, OECD, UN, or otherwise – could provide the global engagement and cooperation needed to slow, and ideally prevent, a future pandemic.

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That being said, regional agreements, like the recently adopted U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement, or bilateral agreements can provide starting points toward a larger, global commitment. Two-party agreements are not only more achievable in the near-term, but they also provide limited-stakes opportunities for parties to experiment with different approaches and ideas, all the while lighting the way for future agreements and providing much-needed infrastructure to the broader, global fight against corruption. To ensure greater international cooperation in the event of a future crisis, the U.S. could, for example, prioritize including public health reporting standards and whistleblower protections in a future U.S.-China trade agreement.

We’ve learned that an attack on one country’s public health can quickly become an attack on all. Though the world is now united in tragedy, it can remain united through a fitting, life-saving response.

Scott Greytak is the advocacy director for the U.S. Office of Transparency International.

Kyle Ainge, a juris doctor candidate at the University of Tulsa College of Law, contributed to this piece.