It is quite in the fitness of things that leaders of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation), at the initiative of prime minister Narendra Modi, decided to have a virtual meeting on the threats posed by COVID-19 infection. Other than India, countries who have confirmed participation in the video conference are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives. The common interest behind this is to unite for common good. Even prior to this, there has been exchange of ideas between China and India about controlling the disease. Following the SAARC meeting, France has convened a virtual meeting of the G-7 countries today. And such moves are all welcome.
Given that COVID-19 has spread to almost all countries in the world, it would be more desirable to have collective efforts of international collectives, than each country doing it separately, to defend against the infection. Contagious diseases are not limited by borders. And today's world has become one through travel, globalization of trade and migration. In the battle against a disease declared a 'pandemic' by the World Health Organisation (WHO), multi-country forums are immensely relevant. And that is not to be limited to small confederations like SAARC or G-7. The collective effort against a global affliction is to be evolved at the global level itself. The scope of actions that the WHO can take, within its current limited jurisdiction, is at best to name the pandemic, issue advisories about ways to prevent and treat the disease, and related health areas. It is incapable of even co-ordinating the efforts of different countries. The global mechanisms of nations do not have the resources to offer a united defence against new global challenges.
It is an easy guess as to what different countries in isolation or through small groupings can do at the utmost to take on a pandemic that has spread all over the planet. Research for preventive medicines, co-ordinated defensive endeavours and effective deployment of required resources should form the collective agenda of the entire world. Economic inequalities and disparities in health facilities do exist among countries. Countries under economic stress – like Iran under embargo currently – cannot effectively curtail the growth of the spread of disease. And despite economic stability, shortfalls in the field of medical facilities may hamper preventive measures, as the case of Italy would illustrate. Whatever be the deficit, the failings of one region will surely pose a threat to other regions too. From now on, any global pandemic can be arrested only by sharing knowledge and resources. Borders between countries pose a major hurdle in this pursuit. And to see how far the obstinacy between countries will upset priorities, one need only look at the budgets of different countrires – many of them set apart only a small percentage of their military budget, for health expenditure. Only a fifth of India's military budget is allocated for its health portfolio.
Among the 27 major heads of expenditure, health occupies only the 14th place. The spending on destruction is not only through arms manufacture and trade. At least a few of the new viruses that cause diseases, are genetic weapons engendered by enmity between countries. China has already raised an allegation that the US is behind the novel corona virus. Be that right or wrong, examples abound of hostilities between nations being the cause of applying genetic weapons; the modern history of this dates back to the use of yellow fever, small pox and others by the Europeans and the British against aboriginals of America. History tells us that the germs of a few fatal diseases like plague, anthrax, botulism were used during World War II. The adoption of a lop-sided priority in spending only a small percentage of such destructive endeavours on disease-prevention efforts, can be corrected only through a global mechanism.
When COVID-19 is unfortunately spreading a big scare, there is no point in waiting for magnanimity of such a big scale. Still, there should be no delay in formulating a global strategy under the initiative of WHO or the UN itself, far more than SAARC and G-7. For unprecedented threats, unprecedented solutions are needed. And for that, there should not be a wait till viruses that may erupt in future, conquer the world. An era is emerging in which at least some of the authority currently wielded by nation states, are transferred to a world-wide agency. It is not only pandemic, but also climate change that demand united solution. So do growing economic disparities and refugee crises. Perhaps corona virus may end up with a wholesome result, if it can instill thoughts on overcoming narrow nationalistic sentiments and about global human welfare.