The pandemic's lesson: Going it alone does not work

The pandemic's lesson: Going it alone does not work
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Understandably, the world is now riveted on the tactical response to the coronavirus pandemic. National leaders, health experts and business executives wrestle with the timing of reducing restrictions, the challenge of accurately measuring infection rates, and the plan should the virus resurge in waves over the next year. 

At the same time, there are critical, long-term strategic decisions that will arise after this particular global health threat finally recedes. What are the lessons learned from what is arguably the most disruptive global event since the Second World War? Will nations retreat into isolation and autarky or, conversely, recognize that our health and well-being depend on more effective global coordination and cooperation?

The overriding lesson of these past few months is that global risks cannot be averted by nations retreating behind borders or acting alone. Borders are no guarantee against disease; travel restrictions can mitigate transmission but don’t eliminate the effects of a pandemic. If a nation-state is truly willing to cut itself off indefinitely from any travel or trade with any other country, it will suffer devastating economic effects as well as impacts on the supply chain for food, manufacturing and technology.  

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An even more clear-cut global risk is climate change. The front pages of major daily newspapers are crowded with news of unprecedented droughts, floods, storms and insect infestations that are also causing worldwide loss of life and economic devastation. As sea levels rise and climate becomes destabilized, there will be knock on effects in food availability, mass migration and, yes, new diseases. And there is simply no way one country can isolate itself from turbulent weather and its impact. 

The lesson boils down to this: Our air and seas are global commons, and degradation of these cannot be contained by national boundaries. So how do we construct a realistic model of effective global action that does not simply overlook or dismiss what are real and significant differences in interests and values among nations?

Several principles are key to a realistic strategy to address potential or incipient global threats. First, there must be agreement among major nation-state players that the biological or climate risk is significant and real. Second, there must be a common view of the science that underlies the risks and, therefore, of the mitigation or containment steps that will manage that risk. Third, there must be transparency and sharing of information about how the threat is unfolding and about the effectiveness of remediation. Finally, there must be a mutual understanding that whatever other disagreements there are among nations on matters of security, trade and politics, concerted action on a global threat will not become a bargaining chip for unrelated disputes. 

In the past, concerted action has worked to stem the spread of new epidemics. This time, it was less effective because of a combination of down-playing reporting about the early onset, discouraging early multi-national response and letting political and trade disputes overshadow concerted international action and erode trust even among longstanding allies. For the next round, we need to restore and depoliticize international health organizations, and spur the development of networks of officials and scientists who can cooperate across borders. 

Ironically, the pandemic has created an opportunity to reinvigorate the effort to slow climate change. When economies start growing, there would be wisdom in international cooperation to direct new investment and new transportation architectures so as to “flatten their curve” of carbon generation (to borrow a now familiar public health term). For example, as we become accustomed to online meetings in the current environment, both the public and private sectors can develop policies that promote virtual interaction as an alternative to relentless air travel. 

Obviously, we cannot be naïve about the immediate prospects for seamless international cooperation. But the big lesson of the pandemic is that going at it alone can have universally devastating economic, health and social effects. Our national leaders — and our voters — need to recognize that the alternative to global unity of effort may be widespread and catastrophic effects on our health, our food, our physical safety and our security. To adapt Benjamin Franklin’s phrase: “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Michael Chertoff was secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009. He is executive chairman of The Chertoff Group, a security and risk-management advisory firm.