COVID-19 and Global Health Diplomacy

On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic. Up to that point, the outbreak had caused over 118,000 cases in over a hundred States across the globe. The spread of the virus has prompted States and international institutions to re-assess whether current policy in place is adequate to sustain the repercussions which such an outbreak, or future outbreaks, will leave.

Whilst efforts to ensure a good standard of global health effectively must begin locally in each State, it is counter-productive to imagine that individual governments can combat any pandemic alone. This is clearly demonstrated through the impact which such a virus has had on the healthcare systems of many States, which impact is influenced by several factors but clearly amplified through its highly contagious nature and, in some cases, severe symptoms. It is through a strong collaborative and thorough global effort, both political and fiscal, that countries and their citizens may emerge from the pandemic as unscathed as possible.

The strain on diplomacy and international relations in general have been significant, and in turn, present serious repercussions and concerns in the spheres of international peace-keeping, the global economy, human rights and justice, amongst several others. The pandemic has brought a challenge like no other seen to the global community in the 21st century, not least due to the disruption it has brought to the global power order. National economies have been forced to come to a screeching halt, causing powerful ripple effects on the direction which policymakers have been hastily made to take in order to safeguard important interests. What also cannot be understated is the profound impact which this halt has had on health policy. To name but a few examples of disruptions in the diplomatic world, the annual UN General Assembly held in New York, the current epicenter of the pandemic, may not go ahead as conventionally planned (this year, incidentally, marking 75 years since the signature of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945). Governments, diplomats, and international institutions have been forced to adapt to new social isolation measures or risk putting several matters of concern in jeopardy. NATO, the European Union and various bodies of the UN have hosted various meetings of importance via video-conferencing. In what may be considered as an unprecedented event in the European Union’s history, European Parliament’s history, current EP President David Sassoli addressed an extraordinary session on the 26th of March, 2020, with special measures introduced to allow parliamentarians to place their vote remotely. Speaking about the impact of the pandemic and Europe’s response, Sassoli stated “The European Parliament is doing its duty and will continue to do so. Parliament must remain open, because a virus cannot bring down democracy”. Akin to policy making, diplomacy cannot afford to be halted temporarily, even more so in the face of such a global threat to health.

The current pandemic has highlighted the importance and regard of health as a fundamental element of foreign policy. Amongst the many lessons which have emerged for the global health community, it is clear that strong international ties and a robust global framework will be of immense service to citizens across the globe if implemented effectively and in good faith, particularly in the face of the cross-border nature of such health challenges. This is precisely where global health diplomacy comes in. This area of diplomacy has been loosely defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the intersection of the fields of public health, international affairs, management, law and economics. The synergy of health, foreign policy and trade, in turn, creates the state of the global health policy environment. Today’s health diplomacy involves several actors at various levels, in both a formal and informal setting. This should not be limited to State authority, but includes non-state actors who may influence this process, such as those managing large financial and market resources. Global health diplomacy at an international level necessitates a clear understanding of the current threat/s posed to health, the risks entailed, and the measures which should be taken to effectively ensure good health for citizens. For this reason, health experts are considered key actors in the sphere of global health diplomacy, and are best suited to provide advice and guidance on global coordination efforts.

Standing as a reference point amidst the chaos which the pandemic has created is the World Health Organization (WHO). Founded in 1948, the WHO is a specialized agency of the United Nations established with the objective of “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health” as outlined in the foremost chapter and article of the Organization’s constitution. The founding document of the Organization lists some core principles in its preamble which are of timeless relevance. Amongst the other principles listed, one stands out in the context of the current pandemic: Unequal development in different countries in the promotion of health and control of disease, especially communicable disease, is a common danger.

The presence of inevitable geopolitical power struggles, as always, means that whilst being an idealistic goal to work towards, total and perfect harmony between States is unrealistic. The WHO has seen its fair share of criticism from its different members, displayed more prominently, in recent news, in the form of the US’ decision to halt funding to the Organization, amidst accusations of mismanagement of the spread of the novel coronavirus and of failing to act quickly enough to investigate the spread of the virus. The European Union, still reeling from Brexit, has been forced to address the pandemic in a state which is far from sturdy, whilst also fielding significant criticism. To prove the resilience of the Union, member states have been challenged more than ever before to provide a response that takes into consideration both European health care systems as well as their economies.

Needless to say, this does not, however, mean that such efforts to strengthen international health diplomacy are futile. Through the collective work of States, tangible benefits can be seen on the ground level, a world apart from the sometimes distant world of policymakers. The benefits which good and effective global health diplomacy can bring include increased means of testing as close and accessible as possible to communities, the provision of further protection for health care workers who are serving on the front line, and encouraging the repurposing government bodies to support the State’s response to the crisis, amongst others. Global actors must take on board lessons learned, whether on their territories or not, from previous outbreaks such as the SARS, Zika and Ebola outbreak to understand and cope as best as they can with the present reality. What is of even more paramount importance, is investing in such lessons, measures, and action plans to ensure a sustainable and reliable plan concerning both prevention and action for the future, in the eventuality that States would be forced to come face to face with an outbreak of similar magnitude once again.

Written by: Emma Grech


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