The International Community and Global Society: What Are Pandemics Changing?

Undermining global society’s institutions and rules may have short term benefits for some – cheating can win and it does shore up autocratic regimes. But isolation from the international community has demonstrated disastrous consequences in isolationist, unprepared and anarchic responses to the pandemic, writes Patrick Taran, President of Global Migration Policy Associates. 

The COVID-19 pandemic – rather the reactions to it – have manifested worldwide the dismissal of international solidarity, of transnational economic, social and political cooperation, and of protection of human rights. Discarding these foundations of international community guts the very ability of our one world to overcome the human and economic devastation wrought by the pandemic. Disruptive reactive measures to COVID-19 reveal disarray in the very notion of global society, not least the unleashing of what the UN Secretary General called a “tsunami of hatred”.   

At the same time, governments and other actors more openly flaunt established international normative values, regulatory measures and institutions. Equally disturbing, some governments are seizing the opportunity of panic and political disarray to paralyse the United Nations and call for its “radical reform” or replacement. 

Measures that add up to national isolation and withdrawal from commitments to international law and institutions present a clear and present danger of disintegration of international community. Weakening these norms and institutions sabotages the ability of the world to meet the deepening challenges it faces to peace, the environment, and human welfare – indeed survival, threats only resolved collectively though cooperation and solidarity under rule of law. 

Singularity of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Compared to other contemporary global pandemics, the numbers of corona virus mortality remain modest in many countries. In contrast, the big four pandemics, seasonal influenza, malaria, tuberculosis-TB, and HIV and AIDS, each caused 400,000 to 1.5 million deaths worldwide in 2018. 

But COVID-19 is singular in rapidity of simultaneous transmission globally, ease of mass transmission within communities, and absence of neither effective treatment nor vaccination nor cure, as well as its appearance worldwide in just four months after the first reported fatality in January 2020. It remains singular in the large proportion of infections and attributed deaths in developed countries of the global North. It has affected global elites in government, business, sports and culture far more visibly than any other contemporary pandemic. COVID-19 also revealed a singular lack of preparedness worldwide, despite ample warnings and recent test cases of SARS, MERS and Ebola. 

Immediate fear-driven responses to COVID have been mass confinements and lock-downs of populations, shut-downs of all but the most “essential” economic activity and restrictions of social contact as well as of movement in most countries worldwide. Of particular note is the prevalence of closure of borders, stopping international movement of people – and goods. Some countries restricted exports of health materials and equipment, while repatriation of nationals abroad and deportations, expulsions and exclusion of ‘foreigners’ are ongoing worldwide.

These measures add up to globalized national isolation, disintegrating a large part of the world’s economic activity and trade dependent on international sourcing, supply, multi-country production and assembly as well as marketing, distribution and use or consumption of goods and services. That global activity is also highly dependent on mobility and migration of workforce and skills, particularly in critical sectors of health, food production, construction, transport, and others.

Coronavirus Ethics: Is There a Difference Between the First and Third Worlds?
Oleg Barabanov
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has apparently spread from China to Europe in recent days. Italy was the first European country where the number of infected people reached the hundreds. The number of people infected in France and other countries is also growing; every day, the coronavirus distribution map adds new countries. And, worst of all, the increase in the number of infected people is accompanied by a growing death toll, including increasing death tolls in Europe.

Terms of reference

International community is understood here in a loose definition as “countries of the world considered or acting together as a group,” with a set of common values codified in United Nations human rights instruments and core international labour standards domesticated by most States, together with a set of global institutions functioning as the United Nations in which all 193 recognized States hold formal participative membership. International community also refers to the some fifteen formal regional political-economic integration communities of States.

While the term global society is debated in academic and political discussion, it is referred here as an aspirational notion of “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community” at the global level. This usage acknowledges our world as a diverse array of distinct national, ethnic, and socio-cultural communities, ultimately relying on international institutions to facilitate cooperation, support development, resolve conflicts, promote rights of all people, and pursue common welfare, including ‘the highest attainable standard of health’ for every person.

However, the international community in its organized forms and the aspirational notion of a global society are severely tested by the global COVID-19 pandemic – and harsh response measures to it. Many national responses demonstrate isolationist nationalist approaches backed by xenophobic discourse asserting the primacy of ‘national interest’ and the citizen population over rights and equality of treatment for all, while excluding solidarity and cooperation even within borders as well as across them. This is underlined by measures and speech that explicitly target the other – namely the foreigner – as the origin and vector of the threat – and as illegitimately present ‘in our country.’ 

Culmination of an era of de-regulation and de-socialisation by States 

Underlying these reactive measures is generalized deregulation of economic activity and of worker and social protection. Over recent decades, governments worldwide have deregulated economic activity and simultaneously privatised state functions and resources. Social and regulatory institutions have been de-funded and dismantled, from national health systems to public universities to pension systems to child welfare to labour inspection to environmental protection to maintenance of infrastructure. Deregulation along with downsizing public institutions has smashed the State’s regulatory and social functions in many countries. Singularly, public health institutions and health preparedness, including for emergencies and disasters were gutted in many countries.

Deregulation and de-socialisation also diminished support for and engagement with international institutions, norms and the very notion of multilateralism. The picture includes widespread undermining and discrediting the UN and other multilateral institutions by government, business, political, academic, philanthropic, and civic actors. Notably, many governments have refused to ratify, implement and/or accept accountability to a greater or lesser number of international legal standards, notably those on human rights and labour, and of late international trade rules.

Current Trends

COVID-19 pandemic mitigation measures remain dominated by individual national response measures, many taken in isolation, determined with or without scientific basis and international guidance, characterised by discourse of nationalist isolationism, and justified by rhetoric of protecting “our own people”. Responses by many governments have been explicitly in competition, not cooperation, with other countries, including neighbours. Closing of borders and stopping movement of goods and services as well as people were early and almost universal measures.

Notable tensions are reported between attention and resources directed to taking care of the rich versus leaving working people, people of colour, and otherwise marginalized populations at greater risk of exposure and with less access to personal protective equipment or to treatment.

Measures of confinement, lock-downs, social isolation and suspending all but essential economic activity may be workable for large parts of populations in industrialized, developed countries. However, these measures are direly inhumane and impossible to implement in localities, cities and countries worldwide characterised by crowded indecent housing, absence of water, non-existence of social protection, weak public health systems, inability to distribute emergency food and water, and large populations dependent for survival on day-to-day informal work outside homes.

COVID-19: Toward New Forms of Social Organisation
Ivan Timofeev
Force majeure circumstances justify tough steps and new means of governance, which otherwise may have led to public opposition and protests. Like any epidemic, COVID-19 is a temporary phenomenon. But the arrival of an emergency, however fleeting, can provoke changes that will remain with us for a long time. In the near future, companies that do not move to remote methods of work, where it is physically possible, may become a black sheep, writes Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.

The Paradox

The responses and the changes in attitude manifested in this time of COVID represent a huge paradox – and immediate threats to human welfare, economic activity and social stability.

Primary are discourse and approaches of explicitly nationalist we save ourselves, go it alone, and to hell with the others. In tandem, the others – the foreign, foreigner, and foreigness – are targeted and directly attacked as origin, cause, vector and scapegoat for the alien illness and its perceived mortal threat to ‘our society and economy.’

Institutions and mechanisms, international and national, come under attack, but also the fundamental principles of local and national social cohesion, of peace and of international community are overtly dismissed: cooperation, mutual respect (and dependence), solidarity, shared welfare, and by extension human rights, justice, peace and democracy.

The other side of the paradox is the absolute inability to go it alone for any and all countries and peoples. Even the largest powers are dependent on foreign sources for what makes their economies function from raw materials to technology to people and skills. That dependence is acute for medications, for equipment including PPEs, for health personnel, and for frontline and essential workers. Some self-reliance is possible for some items – for several large industrialized countries – but only for so long, and certainly not as long as this pandemic will be with us, never mind its recurrence or a new one.

The disaster ahead

To paraphrase UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, "The most devastating and destabilising effects" of the pandemic are experienced among the world's poorer countries and among the poor, minority and immigrant populations in developed countries. Unless action is taken now – supported by the norms, institutions and potential of the well developed international community system, “we should be prepared for a significant rise in conflict, hunger and poverty. The spectre of multiple famines looms."

Concern is rising about where a large part of the world’s food will come from over the next year as millions of migrant workers are blocked from travelling to farmlands in Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Portugal, Russian Federation, South Africa, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, the USA, to name only a few. Each of these countries is dependent on seasonal workers from abroad for agricultural labour, food production and processing, work that natives – other than some internal migrant farmworkers – remain unavailable, unable, unwilling and unqualified to do.

At the same time, widespread shortages of health workers already undermined healthcare in many countries while ageing populations needing more health care – never mind the pandemic – are growing worldwide. Reliable projections indicate 9 million more nurses will be needed worldwide than available by the year 2025. International recruitment for immigrant nurses has already depleted national health care systems in developing countries in all regions.

Huge sectors of many national economies: food production, air and sea transport, construction. hospitality and tourism are dependent on international mobility of resources, goods, labour and skills. The looming crisis is the breakdown of existing companies, systems and cooperation to move goods and people—while the waves of bankruptcies and failures are just beginning.

The Big Risks

Rupture of normality opens space for closing space. The pandemic is treated as an opportunity for the powerful, providing a plausible justification for imposing control measures and expanding restrictions on rights and freedoms as well as of movement – along with corresponding surveillance and enforcement policing. The conditions of fear and social isolation coupled with enhanced surveillance and policing also impede social organising – whether unions, civil society or community associations – and diminish protests and contestation.

The pandemic is being seized as the perfect storm opportunity to weaken and blow away normative and regulatory constraints of international law and institutions – and the institutions themselves.

However, responses to a resurgent coronavirus and to future pandemics will be worse as international solidarity, cooperation, regulation and institutions are discredited and dismissed. 

Isolationist responses to COVID coupled with weakened international standards and institutions coincide with global inability to address global warming with consequent rising sea level, more devastating storms, sustained flooding, massive fires and desertification rendering ever larger areas of arable and habitable land neither – resulting in growing human displacement, reduced food production and greater scarcity of potable water for the world’s population.

In tandem, warfare, weapons proliferation, and instability will proliferate as conditions worsen while international laws and institutions for peace, non-proliferation, human rights and sustainable development are disabled.

Morality and Law
Values ​​of the Coronavirus Era
Oleg Barabanov
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is spreading to new cities and countries. An increasing number of people are forced to switch to quarantine and self-isolation. Many lose their jobs and businesses are due to the suspension of economic activity.


Way forward

Only organized cooperation, solidarity, joint action, cooperative research, sharing of emergency materials and coordinated recovery measures will sustain populations, overcome the global recession, and identify prevention and cures for the malady itself.

Reasserting the primacy of the universal values of the international community is essential: human rights, equality, inclusion, solidarity, cooperation, and collective welfare/well-being.

Only the realisation of those values with knowledge and engagement of international institutions will get the world through this crisis and restore a semblance of global society.

That means assertive discourse and strong action by governments and civil society to reclaim and reinforce existing rules: human rights and labour conventions, their supervisory mechanisms and the rule of law. It means supporting, engaging and cooperating with the international community – other countries, their States and societies – through the constellation of international institutions including the WHO, ILO and others in the UN system. It means implementing the full UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and acting to realize its goals and targets. It also means open space for civil society in its independent, organised forms

Undermining global society’s institutions and rules may have short term benefits for some – cheating can win and it does shore up autocratic regimes. But isolation from the international community has demonstrated disastrous consequences in isolationist, unprepared and anarchic responses to the pandemic. Continuing alone competitively will exacerbate the devastating consequences to economies and peoples. It will also make the make the next crisis more disastrous – whether another pandemic or the looming environmental catastrophe resulting from accelerated global warming.

Objectives of US Energy Policy in Europe
Alexander Losev
Washington considers the expansion of cooperation and trade between Russia and Western Europe and Russian influence on its neighbouring countries to be hostile Russian measures taken against Europe, which should be counteracted via economic and military-political means.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.