Pandemic Questions, Multilateral Answers




In many respects, yesterday was remarkable in the global calendar of the coronavirus pandemic.

A major thread running through some of the coronavirus news is the sobriety compelled by the lessons to be learnt from the public health crisis caused by the pathogen.

To start with, a draft report on the origins of the virus is reportedly being considered by experts. According to the report of a joint study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and China, it is most likely that the virus came to human beings from some animals. The virus is said to have come from bats to man through another animal. Although it is still subject to confirmation, the report puts it as “extremely unlikely” that humans got infected in China from a leak in a laboratory where some scientists were allegedly experimenting with the pathogen. A huge conspiracy theory has been built around this claim.

However, the report coming after 15 months that the outbreak of the virus was reported in China is expected to be a subject of discussions in the coming days. For instance, the renowned American infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has asked for more details on the study so as to reach definitive conclusions on the provenance of the virus.

No nation was prepared for the outbreak of coronavirus in 2019; but world leaders are already preparing for future pandemics. A serious country that plans for its future would not like to be caught unprepared again by another pandemic.

The leaders seem to have learnt a deep lesson from the public crisis caused by the virus and its socio-economic consequences.

It was probably in this spirit that 24 world leaders signed a joint statement yesterday calling for an international treaty in preparation for future pandemics. Among the leaders who signed the newspaper article are Senegalese President Macky Sall, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and the director-general of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In a tone reminiscent of the global mood after World II, the leaders entitled the statement like this: “No government can address the threat of pandemics alone – we must come together.”

In sum, the statement encapsulates the basic lesson of the present crisis. It is the way to have a global vision of things.

Although the names of the United States President Joe Biden and that his Chinese opposite number, Xi Jinping, are conspicuously missing in the list of the signatories to the statement, yet it is clear that COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, has spurred a resurgence of the spirit of multilateralism among countries.

The leaders have called for a multilateral approach in preparing for future pandemics. When the Spanish influenza happened a century ago, such a projection into the future was hardly made given the level of development at the time.

Doubtless, the world has witnessed the adoption of the multilateral approach since then at different stages of history.

In the period between the last pandemic and the present one, the United Nations and its agencies and other multilateral institutions were born. However, the resurgence of right-wing populism and nationalism in America, Europe and parts of Asia in the last few years have undermined the multilateral systems put in place. Former American President Donald Trump dramatised this retrogressive tendency by pulling America out of the climate change agreement and stopping America’s funding of the WHO among other myopic acts.

In the context of the present crisis, vaccine nationalism and competition among pharmaceutical companies represent traces of this tendency towards isolationism in international order.

It must, therefore, be a relief when the 24 signatories to the statement reminded the world of the purpose of the multilateral system put in place after World War II. According to them, the system was
“to bring countries together, to dispel the temptations of isolationism and nationalism and to address the challenges that could only be achieved together in the spirit of solidarity and co-operation, namely peace, prosperity, health and security.”

Reassuringly, the 24 leaders added: “We are, therefore, committed to ensuring universal and equitable access to safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines, medicines and diagnostics for the future pandemics
“Immunisation is a global public good and we will need to be able to develop, manufacture and deploy vaccines as quickly as possible.”

More global voices should join in the call for the international treaty that could provide the framework for an effective response to future pandemics. From the global experience of the last 15 months, it is clear that such a treaty would constitute a platform for a cross-border cooperation in dealing with public health emergencies. The world needs effective instruments for coordination of efforts. Such a treaty would be one of them.

If world leaders fail to fashion such instruments from experience, it would mean that not enough lesson has been learnt from the current public health crisis.

With the exception of a few, most leaders across the world seem to be learning the lessons fast.

In effect, while some experts are immersed in finding scientific solutions to the crisis of COVID-19, political leaders and other experts are rethinking strategies in the direction of multilateralism. The language of discussion on the pandemic of the should be that of cooperation and not that of cut-throat nationalism of vaccines.

Incidentally, the centrality of multilateralism in tackling the coronavirus pandemic was also yesterday in focus in an inter-continental conversation among diplomats, generals, strategists, technocrats other experts in Nigeria and from India.

Beside identifying areas of cooperation between Nigeria and India in putting an end to the pandemic, the forum explored the larger question of Indo-African cooperation.

The conversation took place at a webinar jointly staged by the Kaduna-based think tank, the Gusau Institute, and the Monohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) of India.

The founder of the Gusau Institute, former Defence Minister and former National Security Adviser, Lt. Gen Aliyu Gusau Mohammed (rtd.), struck the same chord as the director-general of MP-IDSA, Ambassador Sujan Chinoy, on the purpose of the collaboration between the two think tanks : harvesting ideas to solve practical problems of humanity.

In the circumstance, the theme of the webinar was apt: “India-Nigeria: Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic Together.”

Cooperation and solidarity between the two countries could be of mutual benefits in a manner consistent with what promises to be the paradigm of the post-COVID world order, that is multilateralism.

So the Gusau Institute made a relevant choice in collaborating with an Indian centre of ideas on the subject of COVId-19. That is a good example of strategic thinking in seeking solutions to problems.

The secretary to the government of the federation and chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Mr. Boss Mustapha, gave a fair overview of Nigeria’s nationally coordinated response to the public health emergency. Mustapha, who was represented at the event instructively pointed out that Nigeria’s organisational efforts in the war against COVID-19 have been informed by the experience of the battle against Ebola in 2014. The federal government has given leadership at critical moments of the pandemic and the subnational governments have largely cooperated. What ‘s more, structurally Nigeria is a federation like India.

India is one of the Asian countries in which coronavirus has wreaked enormous havoc. A fellow of the Indian institute, MP-IDSA, Mr. Vinod Kumar, told the story of India’s battle strategy against COVID-19. Just imagine the operational challenge of a lockdown in a country of over a billion people! It is an inspiring story of a supposed third world country giving a world class response to a public health crisis in which there was no where to turn to for help. India looked inward to summon the capacity needed for testing and providing remedies.

As one of the speakers, former Managing Director of The Guardian, Mr. Emeka Izeze, put it, the reality of the global environment should make Africa in general and Nigeria in particular to cultivate a synergy of purpose with India in combatting the pandemic and as well as solving security problems such as terrorism and cybersecurity.

Come to think of it, India is one of the largest producers of COVID-19 vaccines in the world. India produced 60% of world vaccines for other diseases even before the advent of COVID -19.

In the specific case of coronavirus, experts say that India is only second to America in the capacity to produce the vaccine against the virus. According to the consulting firm Deloitte, it is projected that India could produce 3.5 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines this year while the United States has the capacity for the production of 4 billion.

In other words, India can produce vaccines for its own population of 1.3 billion and also export vaccines to other developing countries. Apart from its proven record as the global vaccine factory, India’s coronavirus vaccines are reportedly cheaper and easier to transport; yet they have been proven to be as good as the ones produced in Europe and America. Some experts say that they appear to be more suitable for poor countries’ needs.

Indian speakers at the webinar all emphasised the Indian spirit of cooperation with African countries. For instance, the India’s fund for public health programmes in Africa was mentioned by Ms Ruchita Beri of MP-ISDA as she elaborated on the areas of cooperation between India and African countries. India is already looking beyond its borders and helping others to defeat coronavirus. As another member of MP-ISDA, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, posited, there are manufacturing opportunities for Indian pharmaceutical companies in Africa
As a matter of fact, India and South Africa are prominent among the developing countries asking for a waiver on the global rules put in place to protect patent owners of the recipes and technology for manufacturing vaccines. The relaxation of the rules is necessary for India and other developing to bolster their capacities for vaccines production.

The conversation was enriching from both sides. It is, for instance, noteworthy that Dr. Nasidi Abdulsalami said India could learn from the Nigerian experience in the development of software for disease surveillance. Abdulsalami was the director of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and Executive Director, ECOWAS Regional Centre for Disease Control (RCDC).

Resistance to lockdown along with vaccine hesitancy is a global phenomenon. But as Ambassador Majeev Puri advised, “any vaccine is better than no vaccine at all.” Puri was India’s ambassador to the European Union.

It is the remit of the think tanks – Gusau Institute and MP-IDSA – to generate ideas. How to make use of the ideas is the prerogative of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari and the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. One of the speakers, Dr. Nasiru Sani Gwarzo, emphasised the urgency of countries translating workable ideas into action plans, especially the manufacturing of vaccines, in the face of the public health emergency. Gwarzo is the permanent secretary in the federal ministry of industry. He led the presidential technical team last year to solve the riddle of reported many deaths in Kano amid the pandemic.

All told, as quoted in the statement of the 24 leaders, in the face of a pandemic, “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” The chairman of the first session at the webinar, Brigadier. Gen Saleh Bala (rtd.), put it in other words when he said that COVID-19 should remind all of our common humanity.

A lot of emergent global problems including pandemics can be solved by strengthening a multilateral system.

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