In his State of the Union Address on March 1st, 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden proclaimed, “COVID-19 need no longer control our lives.” Although COVID-19 cases are steadily declining in the United States and other parts of the world, the battle against the pandemic that took more than 6 million lives is still not over. Looking to the future in a post-pandemic world, what lessons can the global community take away from the COVID-19 pandemic, and what does this post-pandemic community look like moving forward in a highly polarized society?
The WHO: An Ineffective Intergovernmental Agency
As an avowed “champion” of science, members of the World Health Organization (WHO) claim to use scientific knowledge to make healthy living an equitable trait for the world. Yet, when it came to handling the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO did not meet the global health standard set by its member states.
The WHO Member States acted leisurely when it came to their initial handling of the pandemic in 2020. When novel coronavirus cases began to skyrocket in China and slowly emerged in Europe, the WHO persistently reassured the global community that there was no need for concern and that there was no concrete evidence of human-to-human transmission. However, December 2019 was one of the first times where an accredited doctor, Zhang Jixian, reported that the novel coronavirus could spread between humans just months before the WHO issued its statement on the transmission venues for the virus.
Additionally, the WHO had lackluster planning when appointing international travel advisories at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time the WHO has had a delayed response to imposing such advisories in times of a health crisis. When SARS, another respiratory disease similar to COVID-19, first appeared in Foshan, China, back in 2003, the organization was hesitant to impose travel warnings and restrictions in the region, as such a practice was considered “rare” at the time. The WHO’s response to the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak was similar to the 2003 SARS outbreak, where WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus discouraged international travel restrictions on the basis that “not enough [information was] known” about the virus. In both scenarios, the WHO’s inability to take immediate action on a novel viral outbreak led to a false sense of security for the global community. Comparing SARS with COVID-19, the world was much more fortunate back in 2003: around 8,000 people worldwide had confirmed cases of SARS by the time of its containment, whereas COVID-19 cases have surpassed almost 470 million and counting.
Why did the WHO seemingly neglect pressing evidence that went against its claims of the growing pandemic? An answer points to the political support both Ghebreyesus and China give to each other. Under Ghebreyesus’ leadership, the WHO seems to be heavily influenced by China, with its agendas matching those of Chinese officials. For example, the WHO has constantly backed the “One China” policy by excluding Taiwan from being a WHO-member state and participating in World Health Assemblies. Furthermore, as most of the world reprimanded China for appearing to have silenced its medical professionals who warned about the looming virus, Ghebreyesus has seemingly pleased China by praising the nation’s leadership for its attempted efforts in handling the outbreak. Such moments are ironic in the pandemic’s history, as Ghebreyesus feared the politicization of the pandemic, which might have referred to the West’s unequivocal suspicions of the Chinese downplaying the severity of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, this led to seething responses from Western member states, most notably from U.S. President Donald Trump, who threatened to pull the United States, the number one major funding source for the WHO, out of the organization.
Although the organization may seem obsolete to some states for its blunders on the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that the WHO remains politically impartial when it comes to making public health decisions for the benefit of the global population. The WHO must not base its decisions on the support of a state; rather, it should conduct scientific investigations to inform the global population. These investigations should allow the WHO’s teams and inspectors to travel to nations without question. However, the WHO does not have the power to send its staff to investigate potential global health crises around the world without a country’s governmental approval. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already pushed for a reform to this policy while calling for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. If countries do not trust the WHO during public health crises, what is the point of such an intergovernmental agency? Nations must learn how to trust the very organization they created in investigating and responding to the various diseases wreaking havoc on the global community. However, this is easier said than done. Powers such as China and the United States are already in a conflict for global dominance. The current WHO is merely utilized as a political battleground for these powers to clash over who has the better response to the pandemic, further rendering the intergovernmental agency ineffective.
Vaccine Diplomacy: The Rise of Hegemonic Soft Power
The COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity for global hegemonic powers to exercise soft power over their spheres of influence, particularly through vaccine production and distribution. In other words, vaccines became the carrot on a stick that hegemonic powers dangled over smaller nations. This approach has subsequently become known as “vaccine diplomacy.”
China is one example of a hegemon that attempted to expand its soft power, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region and the Global South. Beijing’s international sphere of influence grew when it started to export its vaccines, namely Sinovac and Sinopharm, to countries that supported its economic and political agenda. An example of this practice lies within Latin America, where Beijing allegedly pressured Paraguay to cut its ties with Taiwan and Brazil to purchase Huawei 5G technology. In the Indo-Pacific region specifically, China has maintained its influential vaccine diplomacy as an attempt to redefine the balance of power throughout the strategic region through policies that actively discounted and distributed its vaccines to nations like Indonesia, where 80% of the nation’s vaccine supply is manufactured in China.
The United States is another example. President Joe Biden recently announced the Indo-Pacific Strategy, where the U.S. seeks a “free and open Indo-Pacific” to protect its strategic and security interests in the region. Washington has responded to China’s growing influence vis-à-vis vaccine diplomacy in the region through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the security partnership between itself, Japan, India, and Australia. In late 2021, the four nations committed to producing and sending over one billion doses of vaccines to the region by the end of 2022. However, the Quad’s efforts are suboptimal when compared to their Chinese counterparts, as their attempt at vaccine diplomacy took place much later than China’s attempt, which started to export its vaccines back in mid-2020. Furthermore, India, the main vaccine producer to fuel the Quad’s vaccine commitment, halted vaccine exports when the nation suffered through two deadly waves of the pandemic, further delaying the Quad’s plans to develop vaccines for international distribution.
With the Global South vulnerable to coercive forces, vaccine diplomacy has also intensified bitter rhetoric between hegemonic powers. For example, China recently played a questionable COVID-19 “blame game” when the government targeted international mail as a source for its periodic outbreaks. Additionally, after COVID-19 was discovered in China, Western nations have not hesitated to directly blame the Chinese Communist Party for the global community’s woes.
In the case of competing for influence over the Indo-Pacific region, it is clear that nations such as the U.S. and China distribute vaccines to vie for strategic gain instead of orchestrating global vaccine equity. Hegemonic powers and big pharma must stop expanding their soft power on the Global South in times of a health crisis. This type of power play serves no purpose in eradicating COVID-19 and only increases the disparaging views in responding to the pandemic. Hegemonic powers must work together in times of global health crises and find solutions that protect nations from the deadly repercussions of such situations. The WHO is a good place to start. Instead of using the intergovernmental agency as a political playground to bicker over who has the better response plan to a pandemic, powers such as the U.S. and China should seek diplomacy with each other while being guided by the WHO, which can serve as an organization for a multilateral response to beneficiary resolutions. From there, these powers should multilaterally work to oversee an equal vaccine distribution program to nations in need. It has been done before: in the 1960s, during the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union spearheaded the distribution of smallpox vaccines, effectively eradicating the disease by 1980. Today, there is COVAX, the reputed multilateral initiative co-led by the WHO whose goal is to supply vaccines to regions that struggle to access these doses. However, the “richer” nations – in other words, the hegemonic powers – that were supposed to fund COVAX ended up falling short of their pledges due to them safeguarding their own vaccine interests. This practice is known as vaccine nationalism and is detrimental to the safeguarding of vaccines for all nations. As long as strategic gain is the main focus for these hegemons, vaccine equality will not see the light of day. If hegemons learn how to cooperate and put aside the quest for power, eliminating COVID-19 and other diseases while securing a health-related egalitarian future would be significantly easier.
Towards a Grim Reality
The inflammatory rhetoric by hegemonic powers, combined with an ineffective World Health Organization, drove a great part of the COVID-19 pandemic’s issues. When it comes to health-related issues, while international cooperation is certainly ideal, it is almost impossible given the current political climate within the international system. This is in consequence of nations being extensively committed to preserving their sovereignties and of the competition for hegemonic power, as shown in the cases of the utilization of the WHO as a political battleground and vaccine diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than seeking cooperation in advancing healthcare for the global community, these nations choose a path of ideological rivalry to determine who has the better approach to healthcare and pandemic-response plans.
Given the post-pandemic lessons, should another pandemic arise, the global community’s response is likely to be just as ineffective, if not worse, than its response to COVID-19.
While it is commendable that nations have created new post-pandemic infrastructures as a response to COVID-19, it is difficult to predict how these nations will rescope these resources if another pandemic arises and if expanding their power remains the primary objective. It is imperative that nations, especially hegemonic powers, should consider these lessons moving forward from COVID-19. Otherwise, the global community faces a grim reality: a historical phenomenon that is likely to repeat.