Covid-19 has shone a stark light on many of the failings of our current systems. Many developed nations – including the richest in the world – have been unable to meet the basic needs of their citizens, while global cooperation has been seen to be in an increasingly dark place. Some of this is a failure at the source: A lack of transparency and an asymmetric approach to responsibility meant China was slow to reveal the extent of the outbreak.
It’s not surprising, then, that in a survey conducted in 25 countries around the world for the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project – produced by YouGov in collaboration with researchers from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, as well as the University of Cambridge and the Guardian – we found there is a near universal belief that China hid the truth, meaning that the impact of the pandemic has been more severe than it would have been otherwise.
However, the failings go much deeper than that. Global cooperation has been hampered by nations taking more unilateral and nationalistic approaches to issues such as vaccine development and the plundering of protective equipment. In the short-term this approach might appear logical, but barring an ability to effectively seal off a country and keep economic activity strong, the global nature of the problem means this is almost certainly going to be myopic.
The pandemic has therefore revealed a failure of effective system design and incentives. Primary among them is how we collectively value health. In an interconnected world, the risks that pandemics present are profound – and we cannot underprice the risk of another crisis like Covid-19 occurring again. We are not immune to what happens in other countries, which means that public health is a human grand challenge, and one that we must treat as a global public good.
In the survey we conducted, it was clear that there was strong public support for more action in this area. In every country, the majority of people thought that the study of infectious diseases was a significant priority. Support for cooperation in other areas, however, was much more mixed, which suggests that the immediacy and scale of the current crisis is driving desire for coordination on matters of health. While this desire may be born out of self-interest, it also clearly aligns with national and global interests.
Percentage of respondents by country who believe global cooperation on the study of infectious diseases should be a foreign-policy priority
Should developing global cooperation between countries on the study of infectious diseases be a foreign policy priority?
As it stands, there is no obvious mechanism to deliver this type of coordination. Many of our current institutions have fallen short. There has been inconsistent messaging on masks, testing and social distancing, and we have been late to pool clinical trial across countries. These institutions must rise to the occasion as the world faces a defining challenge of distributing vaccines next year.
It may therefore be time to build new, more effective coalitions for collaboration, with technology at the centre. In particular, there needs to be a greater focus on generating comprehensive, real-time and actionable data, which can reap the benefits of scale. If we did better at collecting such data, with surveillance systems that utilise developments in wearables, smart sensors and AI, we could deploy therapeutics and vaccines earlier and more effectively. Countries must also invest more in R&D and build rich datasets to supercharge the biotech revolution, which is today providing us with the ability to interact with biology in same way we do with computers, while a global policy framework that makes interoperability and standards a central requirement is needed.
Getting to this point would necessitate states working more closely with companies developing innovative solutions to the challenges in this, as well as with civil society and non-governmental organisations. But the prize is large. We need to be prepared for the next pandemic, and a failure of the international system to do so would be unforgivable. However, health is just one of the grand challenges we face; building new forms of digital multilateralism is going to be key to developing the breakthroughs needed to solve them.
Editor's Note: Some data in charts and text may vary slightly due to rounding. Participants for the survey were selected from an online panel, which should be taken into account in responses to questions about online activities, particularly in countries with low levels of internet access. More information about the research and results can be found here: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/yougov-cambridge/globalism-project