The UN’s role in times of coronavirus

Martand Jha | Updated on March 31, 2020

As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the globe and nations strive to save their people and economies, the UN will need to step up to save the world order from collapse

The United Nations should have been celebrating its platinum jubilee year as an institution whose primary aim has been to promote international peace and security. Since its formation in 1945, the UN has been the symbol of international cooperation and global well-being which was threatened by the two world wars that were fought in the first half of the 20th Century.

Seventy-five years after its birth, the UN is again facing an unprecedented situation which is literally threatening the global health. The coronavirus has wrecked havoc in numerous countries, with thousands being already dead in Europe and Asia and the number of infected people approaching 5,00,000 globally.

Countries like Italy, China, Spain and Iran have been tormented by the spread of Covid-19, that is killing people there in hundreds each passing day. Therefore, the 75th anniversary of UN’s existence as an international body has come with acute pain, grief, agony and sadness. Every idea that the body stands for is currently under threat, with nation after nation is announcing country-wide lockdowns. International economy is looking towards a historical collapse, and to make the situations worse, no viable Covid-19 vaccine has been made yet.

Global threat

During its platinum jubilee year, the UN would have worked for deeper globalisation, more people-to-people contact, and countries cooperating with each other both economically and socially. Instead, what we see today is an anti-thesis to what the UN would have normally wanted. ‘Social distancing’ has become the buzz-word today globally for people in order to survive. The world has not seen such a threat since World War-II. However, the UN as an institution does not have any expertise in handling such a threat as this, because it primarily deals with aiming to establish cordial relations between nation-states.

The situation on the ground in most countries resembles war, minus the shooting and bombing. The coronavirus pandemic is showing its capability to wipe out populations, much like Spanish flu in 1918. But then, there was no formal global institution like UN to foresee any such pandemic. The global order has fundamentally changed in the last 100 years, and today’s world runs on global economic trade and cooperation, which is a marker of globalisation and modernity. Covid-19 threatens to undo all this, if its spread is not curbed as soon as possible.

The longer this pandemic persists, the longer would be the injury to the health of global economy, given that most countries affected are following the principle of ‘to each his own’. Strangely, this time, it’s the highly-developed countries and regions that have been the most hit due to Covid-19. Europe, which is the epicentre of the developed world, has seen the most number of deaths. But this doesn’t mean that poor people across the globe are saved.

The fear which is persisting among the global poor is that if the coronavirus doesn’t kill you, the economy will. Thousands of people are facing the risk of job loss and unemployment even after the pandemic subsides. Stock markets across the world are crashing, and many MNCs are looking to cut down their workforce to sustain themselves. The risks this time are even graver than the 2009 economic recession.

Facilitating cooperation

It seems that it would take the world a significant time to stand up on its feet back again. Due to this, the UN does not only fear an economic crisis but a larger humanitarian crisis. History has proven that any humanitarian crisis affects the poor the most, leading to loss of livelihood and even death. While the UN can’t do much in containing the spread of the coronavirus and preventing deaths, it surely aims to build an atmosphere of free flow of goods and services between countries for a speedy recovery of the health of global economy.

Doing that would be a huge institutional task, because every nation ravaged by the coronavirus would choose to fend only for itself, and in realist terms, would act on pure ‘self-interest’. The borders are expected to become more entrenched as nations in a very realistic sense can’t afford to be ‘liberal’ with other nations in terms of cooperating. The situation could very well turn out to be a ‘survival of the fittest’.

Today, the World Health Organization (WHO), whose primary role is to direct international health within the UN’s system and to lead partners in global health responses, is leading at the forefront in disseminating valuable information and updates related to Covid-19. Once the health crisis ends, the real test for the UN will kick in: it must keep the world united and ensure world peace. This at a time when China is being seriously blamed for letting this virus spread and leading it to become a deadly global pandemic.

If nation-states at the highest level decide to take serious action against China, global security would again be threatened, as China is not a small insignificant player in the international system. It’s a nuclear power at the cusp of becoming a superpower soon. For the UN, the crisis is already looming larger and larger over the horizon.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the School of International Studies, JNU

Published on March 31, 2020

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