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Covid-19 Pandemic: Time to revitalise multilateralism

ISSUE 2020
No 08
Release 01 st April 2020
By LENG Thearith*, PhD

Executive Summary

  • As individual efforts to cope with the Covid-19 appeared less fruitful, several countries have chosen the multilateral platforms such as ASEAN, G-7 and G-20 to coordinate their policy responses;
  • Multilateral institutions, such as WHO and World Bank, have played a crucial role in mitigating economic and health challenges posed by the coronavirus;
  • ASEAN and ASEM should consider founding an epidemic centre and a reserve fund to deal with both health and economic consequences of the Covid-19.

Multilateralism lost its track after the US’s withdrawal from multilateral agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, and the recent UK’s exit from the European Union (EU). The multilateral system was brought to its knees, but the recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus, officially named as Covid-19, has apparently revived the system. The Covid-19 has not only posed a grave threat to the world economy, but also to the very survival of humanity. In spite of this fallout, this virus has brought the world closer together, as evidenced by the increasing use of multilateral platforms by states and the active roles played by multilateral institutions, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Bank (WB) in tackling this grave threat.

The Covid-19 has created an unprecedented social distress with some people arguing that the apocalypse is imminent. In some countries, certain people have reportedly become more aggressive and less sympathetic towards one another. In some video clips shared on social media, some vulnerable people with sickness symptoms were largely left behind by the crowd, and some others were reportedly engaging in certain fighting over toilet paper. Even worse, this virus has even exacerbated the existing social divisions, especially racism and social prejudice in some societies.

This pandemic has not only created the social tensions, but severely impacted the global economy. It has disrupted the regional and global supply chains, triggering the loss of millions of jobs worldwide. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that around 25 million people might have lost their jobs due to the quick spread of the coronavirus. In response, many countries have individually resorted to the adoption of harsh measures, including the banning of mass gatherings, school closures, city lockdowns and borders closure in order to stem the spread of the Covid-19. Those measures, despite having some effects on slowing down the spread of the virus, have, at the same time, crippled their economies.

For fears of an economic recession at home, those countries have introduced a wide range of policies, including but not limited to stimulus and monetary policies, in a bid to restore the investor confidence and keep people in their jobs as many as they can. Yet, these unilateral efforts still show little sign of success. Billions of dollars have still been wiped off from the global stock markets; supply chains have still been disrupted; millions of workers across the globe have been continually laid off.

Addressing this global pandemic crisis do not solely lie in economic or health responses, but rather in the combination of both or more. What matter most is that solutions to this downturn should be made through cooperation or coordinated efforts between countries, and this point was clearly articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi even dispatched his medical team to Europe and Cambodia in order to help the latter group combat the virus. Although these European nations are basically equipped with high-standard medical equipment, they may not be able to cope with a tsunami of Covid-19 patients. The Italian case is a prime example where more than 9,000 Covid-19 deaths have been reported as of the date of this writing.

The severity of this crisis has prompted the critical shortage of medical supplies in many countries, including the European ones. It is hard for them to fight against the spread of the virus on their own without external assistance. EU and China reciprocally helped each other through the provision of medical supplies. China has recently provided the EU several medical supplies, which included about 2 million surgical masks. Hungary, in addition, received 3 million masks, 100,000 test kits and 86 ventilators from China.

Moreover, the recent cluster infection of Covid-19, which happened to peoples attending religious gatherings in Malaysia, in ASEAN countries also suggests that coordinated policies or mechanisms between authorities of the ASEAN members should be further strengthened in order to prevent or at least mitigate the possibility of this community infection. These are just some examples that suggest the necessity of multilateral efforts in time of crisis. Actually, there have been many notable forms of multilateral cooperation between countries in response to the Covid-19 crisis so far.

Multilateral Reponses to the Covid-19

Given enormous impacts on both global economy and healthcare sectors, there have been significant responses to the crisis at both regional and global scales. At the regional level, ASEAN and China, for example, held a special meeting last February with an aim to tackle the threat. Both parties committed to improving coordination between agencies in the areas of health, quarantine, transportation and border control. More interestingly, both sides also agreed to pool their resources to establish the ASEAN-China reserve centres to control epidemic diseases. In mid-March, ASEAN, moreover, held a series of meetings to seek ways to mitigate the impacts caused by the Covid-19 on the economic growth and healthcare system of the bloc. The regional countries agreed to keep their markets open for trade and investment, share information about the Covid-19 travel restrictions, and their containment and treatment strategies, ensure sustainability of supply chains and improve the bloc’s cooperation with the group’s external partners with regards to the supply chains.

The G-7 response to the Covid-19 pandemic is also worth noting. The group eventually came with common responses to the crisis, despite its initial friction between the US and the EU over the monopolisation of the vaccines developed by a German firm, and the travel restrictions imposed by the US on the EU travellers. Specifically, they agreed to pool their medical resources and coordinate their central banks’ policies together. The G-20’s response to the Covid-19 crisis is another interesting case in point. The group of 20 industrialised nations, in spite of some differences, ultimately expressed their united front over the adoption of both economic and health measures to reverse the course of the pandemic. On the economic front, they pledge to inject approximately US$5 trillion into the global economy to keep the world economies afloat during this hibernation period.

On the medical front, the G-20 nations committed to ramping up the medical supplies, ensuring the smooth flow of those supplies and other commodities across the borders, and resolving supply chain disruptions. Regarding the medical supplies, it is worth noting that several countries, including those of the G-20, earlier banned the export of the medical supplies from their countries to others in response to their extreme shortages at home. The G-20 also recognised the need to improve the global financial safety nets and national health systems in poor countries. Interestingly, US President Donald J. Trump acknowledged the significance of multilateral coordination — a rare-but-important move made by this president.

Aside from the above responses, the World Bank has recently approved $14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist private firms and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The package will help to strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis, and treatment, and support for the private sector.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), another United Nations body, has, furthermore, played an active role in assisting the affected countries with their fights against this fatal virus. So far, the WHO has played a central role in providing them the personal protective equipment (PPE), educating the public about ways the Covid-19 spreads and how to prevent the infection, strengthening the laboratory capacity and building the capacity of the affected countries to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

To conclude, the Covid-19 pandemic has, despite its extreme dark side, taught the world an important lesson about multilateral system, which has been significantly undermined prior to the outbreak of the virus. The clear lesson we can learn from the responses to this crisis is that Not all issues can be resolved at the national level. The non-traditional security issues, especially epidemic diseases [i.e. Covid-19] require a high level of multilateral cooperation between states and territories. No countries can unilaterally claim to win over this invisible enemy, be it a military superpower or a wealthy nation. We can only win this war by working together and revitalising the multilateral institutions. By so doing, we have more chances to overcome all challenges posed by this deadly virus, as well as other threats alike.

Policy Recommendations for ASEAN and ASEM

As the world is facing the twin crises —economics and health —at the same time, it is important that states strengthen multilateral institutions including ASEAN and ASEM. First of all, ASEAN needs to coordinate their economic and health policies in order to ensure the efficacy of their responses to the pandemic. In terms of health aspect, it is necessary to create an epidemic centre to coordinate their health policy responses in a bid to contain the virus spread. This centre will, in addition, play a significant role in sharing and updating information about epidemics and strengthening the laboratory testing capability. They should also consider setting a reserve fund to assist member countries, which are hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, and to ensure a smooth border control and flow of goods and services. These ASEAN’s mechanisms can also be participated by the bloc’s partners such as Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, the US, the EU and whichever countries keen in these mechanisms.

ASEM is a loose multilateral platform compared to ASEAN; therefore, it may be rather hard to coordinate common policy responses. However, this crisis may provide ASEM countries a good opportunity to institutionalise this platform. Specifically, ASEM may join or back the above ASEAN’s initiatives —creation of the epidemic centre and reserve fund—with aims to mitigate the negative impacts caused by the Covid-19 in particular. By institutionalising ASEM, the world may stand a chance to ward off this imminent threat.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.