Ban Ki-Moon: The Lesson from COVID-19 is that We Need More, Not Less, Global Cooperation | Opinion

Global leadership has been sorely absent in the face of the gravest threat to human life in more than a century. Instead of unity, there is political acrimony. Instead of heeding the advice of experts, they are sidelined, undermined. Instead of international co-operation, there is finger-pointing. COVID-19 has become a blame game of international politics.

I need not dwell on the consequences of this colossal, collective failure of global leadership. The pandemic is still spreading, its death toll now in the hundreds of thousands. The global economy is at a standstill. Hundreds of millions of people are unemployed, and as hunger grows, so will civil strife. According to the UN, a quarter of a billion people may starve this year. What progress we have made on reducing poverty and malnutrition and our other social development goals could be wiped out within months.

In our hyper-connected world, where misinformation spreads faster than the virus, this blame game will get us nowhere. Tweets are no substitute for good policies and political action. It's time to put an end to political bickering and focus on the job at hand: containing the pandemic. To further politicize the current health emergency is not only immoral and irresponsible; it is almost criminal.

Trust is the key to building an effective global response to COVID-19. We know that measures to contain the virus have been most effective in countries where citizens have a high degree of trust in their governments. And we know that global co-operation has succeeded in stopping deadly pathogens in the past. Smallpox was eradicated with a global immunization campaign led by the World Health Organization. At a critical moment of an Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014, the UN Security Council pronounced it a threat to international peace and security, and dispatched its first ever mission to combat a disease.

If we have been unable to apply the lessons learnt from previous epidemics, it is because trust between governments, and in our multilateral institutions, is at its lowest ebb. Never have we needed it more. Only by working together will we be able to devise rapid responses to health emergencies such as COVID-19. Shutting down borders and cities, hoarding medical supplies, every man for himself: that is not the answer.

We need new ways of working to rebuild trust in collective action for the common good. A global platform, where best practices and success stories and the most updated data and information can be shared, would be a good place to start. The platform would encourage all stakeholders, including health professionals, researchers, the pharmaceutical industry and policy-makers, to engage in a professional and non-partisan way. It would be a first step towards improving global coordination on rapid responses to health emergencies, while building consensus on how to prevent or deal with future ones.

We need international co-operation, too, on how to reopen our economies and our borders safely. We need commonly agreed international rules to allow travel to resume without again becoming a vector for the deadly virus. And to achieve this we need to tone down the politics and maximize openness and co-operation based on the best available information and data.

Secondly, when the time comes to rebuild, we must rebuild better, with a different set of priorities. As Pope Francis reminds us, nature never forgives. How can we presume to remain healthy in a world that is sick? We need to invest in public health, in social safety nets such as a minimum living wage, in education, sanitation and clean water, in green energy and climate action. In short, we must revive our economies by investing in people and the planet. We can no longer pursue short-term economic growth at the expense of everything else. The Green Deal proposed by the European Union is timely, but it is not a quick fix. In Europe and elsewhere, we need a shift towards long-term green growth.

Hand-in-hand with this, we need to address the deep inequalities in our global economic systems. Inequality is the root cause of every modern social disease, from poverty to terrorism. Inequality stokes fear and sows mistrust. It is the poorest, less-privileged members of our societies who are dying in greater numbers from COVID-19. They are bearing the brunt of hunger and unemployment brought by the virus. Emergency relief for the loss of income during the pandemic is necessary, but we need to move beyond short-term compensation towards long-term investment in social inclusivity.

We know that COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic, but it is the one by which our leaders and political systems, including our multilateral institutions, will be judged based on fairness, transparency, openness and inclusiveness. We must not fail our citizens. We must rebuild trust in international co-operation to mount an effective response and be better prepared for the next emergency, when it comes.

Ban Ki-moon is the 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​