The scale, speed and threat of the global COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented, as is the financial response now required. According to experts, this pandemic is unlikely to be quickly contained. It may ebb and flow over time, across seasons and between regions, underscoring the importance of a coordinated global response.
As former Presidents and Prime Ministers, we have variously led our democracies in response to governance transitions, financial crises, civil unrest and violent conflict, and to epidemics as serious as SARS, H1N1, MERS and Ebola. Given the startling velocity with which COVID-19 has spread globally, this pandemic must be addressed urgently in real-time. That will require a leadership approach based on values of solidarity, equity and cooperation which transcend a sole focus on national interests – that alone would prove insufficient to stop a global pandemic.
We welcomed the convening of the first virtual Leader’s Summit of the G20 on 26 March 2020. The message sent from the Club of Madrid beforehand aimed to encourage the G20 to establish global solidarity in the fight against the pandemic. We fully agree with the call made by the Director General of the World Health Organisation to ´fight, unite, ignite´ against the virus that threatens to tear the world apart. We call on the G20 to provide the leadership and support needed for a globally coordinated response. The G20’s engagement is particularly important. As we saw a decade ago during the financial crisis, its convening of countries from every region of the world representing more than ninety percent of the global economy and two-thirds of its population can be critical. The G20 must develop and deliver a comprehensive response to both the unfolding public health emergency and, increasingly, the global economic and social emergency in a way that provides confidence to people and markets. This response must go beyond platitudes and principles. It must result in concrete decisions, such as to eliminate barriers to the free movement of medical personnel and equipment, to coordinate efforts around vaccine development and testing, and to support low income countries which have poor public health infrastructure and capacity.
To date, world leaders have largely focused on the outbreaks in their own countries. The priority given by leaders to solving the problems of their own citizens is understandable. No country is safe, however, from a pandemic like COVID 19. Stand-alone national strategies will not only prove ineffective in stopping the virus, but they would also mean that the international response will be weaker than needed to prove effective.
The World Health Organization has worked admirably within its capacity to coordinate a global response. Yet one multilateral agency left to act alone cannot perform miracles. The multilateral system as a whole must step up to provide the response required. The UN Security Council should resolve to address the global pandemic as a threat to global peace and security. The UN system as a whole is only as strong as its members. The COVID-19 response requires leadership at the global level, to tackle not only the outbreak, but also to coordinate efforts to stave off the next great economic depression. Governments should not develop stimulus packages in isolation. We know from history this will only create fiscal imbalances that will make the recovery harder. And governments must also align their efforts with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement to ensure we are better placed to tackle other global challenges like climate change as we emerge from this crisis.
We are especially concerned regarding the rapid spread of COVID-19 to countries in the Global South. Public health infrastructure and capacities have already been sorely stretched in China, South Korea, Europe and the USA. United Nations Secretary General (and Club of Madrid Member), Antonio Guterres, has rightly called on wealthier countries to focus beyond their national challenges and work towards a comprehensive response which supports poorer countries. The proposal of the Government of Norway to the G-20 to establish an international fund to help the countries of the Global South is a step in the right direction. A global response fund which envisions public-private cooperation across borders, at the disposal of international public health experts, is critical for leaving no one behind both between and within countries.
In many places, identifiable groups have not enjoyed full access to goods, opportunities and services. Public health responses must take into account the need to focus on and include those historically or otherwise marginalised from healthcare, including ethnic and religious groups, indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, women and youth. If their exclusion is replicated in the response to the pandemic, not only will they be potentially decimated by illness but, they may also become continued transmitters of the virus even as it begins to recede among other populations.
Technology is a part of the solution, but it also needs to be applied equitably between and within nations. We know that digital transformation has not been inclusive and equitable across societies, particularly as it affects women and minorities. We must be sure that the technological responses we develop like testing, medical care, and, in time, vaccines are distributed equitably. In South Korea for example, access to continuous and rigorous testing procedures made accessible to the public through user-friendly drive-through and even walk-through sites, has maintained civil order and allowed public health managers to achieve a high recovery rate.
Efforts to support the global economy must also focus on the most marginalised and excluded populations. This means building economic recovery strategies around employment, poverty reduction and sustainable business models.
Without an effective global strategy and action, COVID-19 will continue to spread, taking a heavy toll on human health and well-being and severely damaging economies and societies. As former Presidents and Prime Ministers, we call on the G-20 and world leaders to finance and empower a reinvigorated and coordinated international response which leaves no one behind and aims to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.