The recent candid admission by the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, that multilateralism has failed to address the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic only confirms what the chaotic response by multilateral institutions worldwide to the challenges posed by the virus outbreak had already led many to believe. Addressing the Finance for Development forum earlier this month, Guterres warned that so far, multilateral mechanisms have failed to come up with an adequate response, either on the vaccine front, or on economic measures to help weaker nations ravaged by the pandemic. “Advancing an equitable global response and recovery from the pandemic is putting multilateralism to the test,” Guterres said in his speech, adding, “So far, it is a test we have failed.”
The reasons are not hard to spot. Multilateral institutions – almost all post-World War II creations – had been increasingly coming under pressure as the old order of power, both economic and military, started changing. This had started well before the pandemic. While new emerging economic powers – China in particular, but also India – sought a more equitable position on the world stage given their changed economic status, Brexit has tested the concept of the European Union.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of China as a military and economic superpower, as well as the virtual stalling of trade talks to reshape the global trade order under the aegis of the World Trade Organisation were all paradigm shifts which had been set in motion well before the pandemic hit. What the virus has done is to starkly highlight the fact – particularly to the economically weaker and developing nations, that when it comes to a life-threatening crisis, the mighty have no time for the poor and the weak.
Guterres himself has pointed out the vast inequalities in the world’s response: just 10 countries account for more than 75 per cent of Covid vaccinations given. While India, despite being a major vaccine manufacturer, is struggling with vaccine shortages as a deadly second wave scales new peaks of infection and deaths, many developed nations have stockpiled vaccines well over the needs of their populations, while many nations, particularly in Africa, haven’t received a single vaccine yet.
The global economic cost of unequal access and vaccine hoarding is estimated at more than $9 trillion, but the political cost may be higher. Unless enlightened political leadership from the powerful nations ensures a more equitable response going forward, it is clear that faith in a rules-based multilateral order to address common global challenges – whether of economic development, trade, climate change or indeed the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic – will be destroyed, possibly beyond repair. Unless the world – particularly the big powers – can demonstrate that they are prepared to treat vaccines as a global public good, and tackling of the post-Covid economic challenge as a shared goal, it appears that the virus may end up adding the idea of multilateralism to its growing list of victims.