Thousands of people are now dead and billions now sheltering at home in fear of a proliferating deadly virus that could have been contained at its source. But even though this crisis is and feels like a health crisis, it is also at its core the manifestation of a total failure of our collective political organization. Unless we urgently address the fundamental mismatch between the magnitude of the common global challenges we humans face and the insufficiency of our existing institutions to address them, we’ll again be unprepared when even worse challenges rear their heads in the future.
Imagine what would have happened last December, when the first evidence of the coronavirus crisis emerged in China, if we’d had an international health organization with a with a robust pathogen surveillance system in place. When the first tripwire of an outbreak was hit, a fully resourced team of experts with the power to overrule the initial Chinese cover up would have been immediately dispatched to work with local authorities to squelch it. If the outbreak could not be contained, the organization would have led governments around the world in a coordinated campaign to stop it. The organization would have shared the most recent information and best practices for containment, coordinated consistent messaging the world over to help facilitate the most targeted, efficient, and effective response possible, served as a traffic cop for efforts to develop treatments and vaccines, and made sure that the best available treatments were available the world over.
After the crisis would have abated due to these strong, proactive, and coordinated measures, the organization would now be studying lessons learned so we can do even better the next time, strengthening its surveillance capabilities, intensely preparing for the next pandemic, and working aggressively to buttress local health systems and help prepare local officials, civil society leaders, and general publics for future threats.
Many people might think we already have an organization kind of like that, the World Health Organization. Established in 1948, the WHO, is, according to its founding document, “the directing and coordinating authority on international health work.” On paper. In reality, the organization (with which, in full disclosure, I have the honor to be associated) is underfunded, understaffed, and under-empowered by states. It can’t make states do much of anything and doesn’t even control how most of its own budget is spent. However well-intentioned and capable its leadership and staff, the WHO clearly does not have the capacity, tools, or authorities to drive a coordinated global response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The weakness of this international oversight system exacerbated the total failure of the Chinese government in the earliest stages of this crisis. The Chinese authorities waited at least 4 days from when they identified the novel coronavirus (later named SARS-CoV-2) until they notified the WHO, and it took another 42 days from then until the first WHO team of medical experts was allowed in. When Chinese government authorities suppressed the voices of whistleblowers within the Chinese health bureaucracy and when US President Trump peddled dangerous misinformation from the White House podium, the WHO did not have the power or authority to respond.
The world is today in deep crisis and many people have died and will die because of our collective failure, realized over many decades, to build the type of robust response infrastructure we now need. For our own collective good, we must do better. With the economic costs of the current crisis spiraling into the trillions, it could not be more obvious that empowering and funding a WHO with the ability to live up to its founding principles would have been an obvious and small investment in our future security. It still is.
If the only existential future threat we humans collectively face is deadly pathogens, we could stop there. But we have many challenges facing us that could make the current crisis seem like small potatoes. Having big chunks of our planet becomes too hot for human habitation, our oceans exploited to the point of ecosystem collapse, or weapons of mass destruction proliferating uncontrollably could then lead to future crises far worse, more deadly, and more costly than what we are now facing. We’ve known this for years but haven’t been able to respond because we haven’t organized ourselves for that fight.
The experience of the First and Second World Wars made clear to leading statespeople in the US, UK, and elsewhere that a world organized around sovereign states alone was inherently unstable. Balances of power, they recognized, were destined to eventually become dangerously unbalanced. To address the problem of rigid state sovereignty that had pulled us into WWI and of excessive nationalism that sparked WWII, leaders like FDR, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and others imagined and helped establish a set of international treaties like the 1945 UN charter supported by a series of institutions including the United Nations, World Bank, IMF, and, later, the European Union, designed to share elements of sovereignty and temper the most dangerous elements of extreme nationalism.
These organizations have done a great deal to make our world safer, more stable, and more prosperous over the past 75 years. But they have also been unable to solve our biggest common problems because the states that created them weren’t willing to cede the power and resources needed to make that possible. Today, a new generation of leaders including Donald Trump, Hungary’s Victor Orban, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not to mention revisionist leaders like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, are all promoting nationalism and national institutions at the expense of our common humanity and shared approaches. A few days ago, Orban seized nearly absolute power in Hungary. We’ll almost certainly see more actions like this elsewhere over the coming weeks and months. Like our predecessor generations before the two world wars, we are now racing down the track of systems failure toward which nationalist sensibilities have historically shown to lead.
All of us, relatives from the same species spread across the globe, will suffer if we don’t now come together urgently to develop far more meaningful common responses to our shared challenges. Although some of us are calling for a renewed international charter to help better realize this vision of state-centered collaboration and others for developing a new democratic voice of our common humanity, we must now at very least focus our sights on two critical and very immediate tasks.
First, we must urgently ramp up the funding, staffing, authority, and global coordinating role of the World Health Organization. At a time when walls are going up around the world, we desperately need an empowered global health organization to operate above them. The real and metaphorical walls our countries are building to keep the virus out will almost certainly come to mimic the walls around medieval cities that proved effective at keeping invaders out unless the invaders were fleas carrying the bubonic plague, in which case being behind those walls was a death sentence. We don’t now have the WHO we need but we can build it up fast if we put our collective minds to it.
Second, we must create a powerful new specialized agency within the United Nations focusing on common responses to shared, existential threats. Backed by and coordinating with states but also operating with a high degree of depoliticized autonomy, this agency would be tasked with identifying and analyzing the greatest risks facing our species and our common home, developing, coordinating, and implementing ongoing action plans for addressing them, compiling and sharing best practices from around the world, and leading efforts to build capacity everywhere, prepare for and seek to prevent future global crises, and coordinating emergency responses to crises when they occur.
This does not mean we need a world government or should call out the proverbial black helicopters conspiracy theorists have been imagining for years. Our world today is organized primarily around sovereign states and changing that now would be a recipe for chaos and disaster. But we must also see, particularly at this moment of intense global crisis, how the next crisis could be even worse. As bad as this coronavirus is, for example, it is far milder than a deadly pathogen we can easily imagine which could be created for a few thousand dollars in a small lab using the new tools of synthetic biology.
The threats facing us are growing at the speed of globalization but so can our responses. We’re already seeing that with our scientists sharing information and research across borders. Now we must take the next step in our global political organization.
Even if we operate out of our narrowest personal or national self-interest, it should now be clear to everyone that the best way to protect ourselves, our countries, and our world is to finally come together in defense of our common humanity.