The coronavirus has gone global. With at least 56 countries now affected, the World Health Organization has raised its global risk assessment to “very high” as countries such as South Korea, Iran and Italy experience major outbreaks.
Concern has spread across the global economy, with the OECD slashing growth forecasts and $5 trillion is wiped off the value of global markets. As the effects ripple through supply chains, economists are warning of a “supply shock” that will impede global capacity to produce goods and services.
The virus going global and its economic impact are stark reminders that, in our interconnected world, no country is an island unto itself. Like other shared challenges we face, such as climate change and terrorism, epidemics pay no heed to borders and defy unilateral solutions. Global cooperation is the only way to overcome them.
The bad news is that our first impulse in such crises is often to turn inward and raise the barricades. Some are already using the outbreak to argue for stricter controls on the movement of people and goods, or even to question interconnectedness itself.
The contagion has brought xenophobia and scapegoating and has undermined the spirit of cooperation when we need it most. This is nothing new. When the plague was transmitted along trading routes in 13th century Europe, Jewish communities were accused of poisoning wells and were persecuted across the continent.
The good news is that the Dark Ages are over. With science, we know what causes the disease and how to contain it. We know that the real enemy is an invisible pathogen and not a particular group of people. We know that the fight will be most effective if we cooperate as a human family.
Once the virus was reported to the WHO, it was sequenced in just two weeks and could be studied around the world. As more is learned, information about the nature of the virus and how to control it will flash at light speed to every part of the globe.
In this way, humanity has built a kind of global immune system — a network of expertise, institutions and adaptive response mechanisms to fight the disease. The core of this immune system is information sharing and multilateral cooperation.
As the virus goes global, we need a full team and a multilateral response to bring it under control. This means greater cooperation in areas such as international medical assistance, knowledge sharing and vaccine development. Efforts for control and isolation need to be better coordinated. There could also be a role for international bodies to formulate shared standards for such outbreaks, supporting international cooperation.
As the virus spreads to areas with less-developed health systems that may struggle to cope, international cooperation is needed to ensure that expertise and essential supplies reach them. For example, drawing on its own experience in dealing with the virus, China has dispatched teams of experts, along with virus-detection kits and breathing devices, to other countries.
It is important that the world’s two leading powers, China and the United States, work together. Since 2000, they have had a rich history of collaboration on public health issues, including joint programs of the disease control centers on both sides. Unfortunately, as with other collaborative programs, this public health engagement has atrophied as bilateral relations have chilled.
The current outbreak is a chance for China and the U.S. to show they can still work together when faced with a common threat, as happened after 9/11 and the global financial crisis. The recent phase one trade agreement between the countries has put things on a more steady footing. Given the stakes, both sides have compelling reasons to put aside their differences and work together. This would also help set the tone for a more concerted global response to other challenges.
International cooperation is under strain at precisely the time it is most needed to address pressing shared challenges. Let’s hope the current crisis can be a booster shot to reinvigorate the most powerful tool in our species’ collective immune system: working together.