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Urgent need for multilateral action and global leadership

14 Apr 2020

Straits Times, 14 Apr 2020, Urgent need for multilateral action and global leadership

We cannot talk of Covid-19 as a black swan or grey swan.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in his now much watched and rewatched 2015 TED talk had warned then that "if anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it would most likely be a virus rather than a war". He was trying to get governments to invest in health systems after the Ebola crisis. Ruefully, he admitted recently, no one listened.

The global humanitarian sector and the World Health Organisation were aware of the threat of the next pandemic. They did not know what it would be and where it would start. But it was the speed and the spread of Covid-19 that shocked and overwhelmed cities, provinces, states and countries. The disruption involved to wipe out the virus is unprecedented and has all but paralysed the world and economies.

The pandemic has brought home three hard truths about the impact of megatrends that have been unleashed.

1. VIRUS SPREAD FACILITATED BY GLOBALISATION
First, globalisation and hyper-globalisation have facilitated and accelerated the spread of viruses. Air traffic has increased steadily since the year 2000. Last year, 39 million flights were taken by passengers worldwide. It was estimated that this year, there would be 40 million flights but the figure will now plummet because of Covid-19.

It is not surprising that it is the affluent cities of East Asia such as Wuhan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Daegu, the Lombardy region in Europe, and Washington state and New York City in the United States that have been hit first and, in some, the hardest. I have not added cruise holidays.

It is unlikely globalisation will end after the pandemic. There was some minor deglobalisation taking place because of the US-China trade war, but globalisation is too far entrenched in the system to be dismantled, nor does the global community wish it.

2. RETHINKING URBANISATION
Second, rapid urbanisation increasing the density of populations in cities creates problems when it comes to pandemics. Cities have been reshaped after major health outbreaks in history.

Urbanologists and planners have argued the value of higher densification in cities because of environmental sustainability; dense cities are more energy efficient - but it is likely that in future, greater segregation or spacing may be advocated to increase health security.

Some Asian mega-cities may not be able to do anything about this given the unstoppable internal migration.

3. CLIMATE CHANGE ISSUES
Third, climate change may be a contributing factor to the emergence of more viruses in recent years, in addition to the density of living conditions. The link between climate change and viruses should certainly be investigated and will be, but is likely to be limited by the lack of funding from climate-sceptic governments.

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS
The pandemic significantly highlighted the importance of the role of government preparedness and governance. Media commentaries have compared the relative success of Asian societies in dealing with the pandemic, compared with the US and Europe.

In the case of China, Hong Kong and Singapore, the governments have been through the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) experience, which built up the resilience of their systems.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore had been preparing for such an occurrence ever since Sars and had ramped up its health system. South Korea had been through a Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome) epidemic in 2015.

While the countries of Europe and the US have good public health systems and sophisticated healthcare, they did not go through a searing experience like Sars. They shared the experience of the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, which started in the US and spread across the world. But though tens of millions were infected, the effects were not considered severe.

It is clear the ability to coordinate government agencies, move with speed and use science-based solutions such as testing and tracing, contributed to the containment or flattening of the curve of infections. China and South Korea certainly did this. Singapore did the same with the whole-of-government approach.

China had a complete lockdown of Wuhan and Hubei province. South Korea did not do a lockdown.

In the US, the effort to tackle the pandemic was decentralised and city competed with city, state with state, and city and state with federal government agency Fema (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to purchase medical supplies and equipment, bidding against each other. This has its drawbacks.

But above all, in Asia, the willingness of the population to follow government policies and instructions was seen to contribute to achieving results. While Western commentators would like to attribute the compliance to the exercise of authoritarian power, they miss the point. It is trust in government, that rare asset in any society, that makes it easy to nurture compliance in rules and regulations.

Singaporeans trust their Government because it has been open and transparent in its communication with them generally and particularly now with Covid-19 and its effects on the economy and society.

Ironically, they trusted the Government to have done its job so much that as individuals they got complacent, which is one reason for the surge in local cases in recent days.

The Chinese government, with a different kind of political system, enjoys the trust of its citizens, and the harsh lockdown was seen by many people as necessary though they may not have been happy.

In recent years, South Koreans have increased their trust in government. According to the polls, they think their government handled the pandemic well.

What this pandemic shows is that in times of crises, societies that have an underlying culture of social solidarity have an advantage when disciplined behaviour is sought.

GLOBAL RESPONSE NEEDED
What the pandemic also demonstrates is that national responses are not enough. Some 210 countries and territories are now infected. Some are unable to help themselves. Globally there is a shortage of medical supplies. Unless there is a coordinated global response, the early successes may be overturned.

There could be a second wave of infections. As a public health issue, the virus knows no political boundaries. As an economic issue, the global economy is in free fall, markets are in meltdown and millions of jobs have been wiped out.

Fortunately, the international scientific community is collaborating like never before, ignoring the politicisation of the disease, to find a vaccine.

There is an urgent need for global leadership and multilateral action. We need a representative group of world leaders with the political clout and heft to come together to take decisive action. The Group of 20 would seem to be a good working platform. It came together in response to the global financial crisis in 2008-2009 with economic packages and kept a lid on protectionism.

There was a special G-20 video summit held last month on the pandemic. The leaders agreed to stop disruptions to supply chains and inject US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) into the global economy to counteract the social, economic and financial impacts of the coronavirus. It can do more.

The US and China must pause their ideological and strategic rivalry and work together to deal with this once-in-a-century pandemic that impacts all of mankind.

It is too soon to tell what the world will look like after Covid-19. I belong to the school that does not see a great transformation taking place. Some things will change. Geopolitical trends will be fluid and accelerated. Multilateralism will not be the new order of the day.

I lived through 9/11, Sars and the global financial crisis. Some governments tightened security and health security and built their institutions. Air travel became more inconvenient, personal hygiene marginally improved, interest rates became low and the US tightened its regulation over the financial industry. After a couple of years, we forgot or internalised the changes and life went on as before.


Professor Chan Heng Chee chairs the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. She is also chairman of the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.