The World Health Assembly – the decision-making forum for the World Health Organisation (WHO) – convenes today in Geneva. In the years since the WHO was founded in 1948, there has never been a meeting like it. For a start, there is the irony of world health leaders coming together virtually because we are in the midst of a pandemic that has all but frozen world travel.
The assembly also is unique for what is at stake. Normally an occasion for national delegations of health experts and bureaucrats to elect WHO leaders and compare notes on global health challenges, the assembly is unexpectedly being thrust into the centre of geopolitics.
That is because of calls for an independent inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic, which was first recorded in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, and for the establishment of a standing mechanism for investigation of biosecurity threats with powers akin to those of United Nations weapons inspectors.
Australia was at the forefront of that push for an inquiry. The idea has since been advanced by the European Union, which plans its own resolution to establish a mechanism to inquire into “the origin of this disease to prevent the next pandemic”. The fate of the inquiry will be decided by the assembly this week. Going into the assembly, more than 120 countries, including Indonesia and Russia, are backing the joint EU-Australian motion.
The health security threat posed by COVID-19 always was going to enter the realm of geopolitics simply because of its global reach, the costs it imposed and the temptation it presented for domestic political leverage in numerous countries. It has sparked a blame game that not surprisingly has generated an unprecedented pushback by Beijing.
But to absorb the real lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic cool heads will need to prevail. As we slowly emerge from the grips of the pandemic, we face the vital tasks of reconnecting the economies of our region, the Indo-Pacific, and of building defences against epidemic and pandemic disease.
In recent weeks, Asialink’s expert contributors have been assessing the public policy challenges for Asia and Australia arising from COVID-19.
As Asialink senior adviser Donald Greenlees noted in his essay on Bracing for the Next Pandemic we live in a part of the world where there is a high risk of the emergence of pathogens with pandemic potential. Indeed, independent assessments show Southeast Asia is among the regions least able to detect and respond to them.
The experience of COVID-19 has starkly exposed weaknesses in the international system of disease monitoring and control and of individual state preparations for worst cases, nowhere more so than in Asia.
Addressing the shortcomings in our global neighbourhood will require more equitable burden-sharing and for the rich world to see the value of health security assistance as an insurance policy. Moreover, as Greenlees points out, to stave off future pandemics the region will need more, not less cooperation with China.
Former ambassador John McCarthy, expanded on this theme with a timely commentary on the need to avoid recrimination and to achieve a measure of international cooperation in limiting the global impact of COVID-19. He reminds us that if the world, and particularly the Asia-Pacific region, is to recover from the economic abyss which it faces, China has to be involved. For now, he says, we all must get on with addressing global problems now and drop the blame game at least until the crisis is over – after all, numerous countries have made missteps.
In a separate commentary, McCarthy also alerts us of the need at a time of great crisis to support our neighbours in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia. The crisis facing Indonesia is on the same scale as the economic collapse of 1997 and the tsunami of 2004. McCarthy issues a call for the same far-sightedness as the Howard government displayed on both those occasions in supporting our huge northern neighbour.
Predictably, China has bristled at being singled out for blame over the emergence of COVID-19. It has traded barbs with the US and other countries. Asialink’s director of diplomacy, Melissa Conley-Tyler, tracked the “narrative war” and pointed out the high strategic stakes.
As she says, there is the potential for US–China tension on COVID-19 to further fuel existing economic and security tensions across the region.
Recognition of the likely far-reaching strategic impact on the region was on our minds when Asialink struck a collaboration with the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) to bring together a diversity of voices from countries across the region on the impact of COVID-19 on the region’s strategic and foreign policy environment. From the former Head of the Singapore Civil Service, Peter Ho, to the Senior Diplomatic Editor of the Times of India, Indrani Bagchi, these senior commentators help us understand how others see the post-COVID reality for Asia.
We will continue to follow the important public policy debates as they affect our region, affect each of the countries within the region, and affect how Australia forges its relations with the region in the wake of COVID-19.
All this starts with a deeper understanding of the special circumstances of each country, which is what our team has been striving to do in our COVID-19 Country Snapshot series.
We are only at the start of what is likely to be defined as a distinct era in our relations with the Asian region. Our task will be to help provide some of the signposts and capture the significance of developments along the road. In a week that is likely to mark another milestone in the global response to COVID-19, we hope you find our analysis helps guide the way.