Institutions in Preventing COVID-19: Revisiting the Debate Between Realism and Liberal Institutionalism in International Relations (Guest Column)

This guest column was written by Meherun Nesa, Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Security and Strategic Studies, Bangladesh University of Professionals. The following are her words.

The outbreak of COVID-19 as a pandemic in recent times reminds us again that whether the existence of regional and international institutions is inevitable or not to ensure peace and security all around the world. As we all know, COVID-19 is known as Coronavirus disease 2019, an infectious disease originated from Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province in December 2019 caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It has now spread globally and has caused the death of around one hundred thousand people. The European countries, mostly Italy, Spain, France have been affected more by this disease and the number of deaths in these three countries, as of 7 April 2020, include 17127; 13,897 and 10,328 respectively. It is worth to mention that the number of deaths in the United States of America (USA) has crossed 12 thousand so far. Given the nature of the outbreak of the COVID-19 all around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared this disease as pandemic on 11 March 2020.

Apart from the UN, to maintain economic cooperation among the countries of the world in order to rebuild the shattered postwar economy, the Bretton Woods institutions were emerged in 1944. It mainly includes World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Besides, many other regional and international institutions are there to work for the betterment of the political, economic and social conditions of the member countries of such institutions. These may include, European Union (EU), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and so on. The EU comprising 27 European countries and governing common economic, social, and security policies. It is worth to mention that the EU was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2012, in recognition of the organization’s efforts to promote peace and democracy in Europe. Another prominent regional institution is ASEAN which was established in 1967 in order to accelerate economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region of South East Asia. In maintaining mutual cooperation terms of development and regional integration among the countries of South Asia, SAARC was established in 1985.

Therefore, it is expected that, these regional and international organizations must play an active role in order to ensure safety and security of their member countries to overcome the crisis situation led by the outbreak of COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO), an associated agency of the UN, is working very hard to make people aware of the cause and effect of the COVID-19 by providing updated guidelines from the very beginning. However, it can be expected that the WHO could declare the disease as pandemic earlier than 11 March 2020 which could make the different states of the world aware of it from the very beginning and that might save the lives of many people from different parts of the world. It can be said so as according to WHO, a pandemic is a type of epidemic that has spread to at least three countries within the WHO region and by 21 January 2020 COVID-19 was spread to more than three countries as per the situation report of WHO. Therefore, WHO could easily declare the diseases as a pandemic after 21 January 2020. Even, the guideline of WHO to restrict international flights of different countries to prevent the outbreak of novel corona virus was not much strong from the very beginning. In addition, the WHO also did not strongly suggest the affected countries that exactly when the affected countries should to go for complete or partial lockdown to maintain social distance to control the spread of the virus.

Besides, the role of UN is also not very appreciable in preventing this COVID-19 crisis. Though, the secretary general of the UN states that UN is fighting against corona virus to achieve global goals, no clear and specific initiatives is visible so far. However, the UN has decided to support all governments to ensure the stability of global economy. The UN Secretary General launched Global Humanitarian Response Plan: COVID-19 (April — December 2020) of USD 2.01 billion on 25 March 2020 while more than 150 countries of the world have been affected by the novel corona virus. Moreover, the UN did not predict the emergence of such kind of devastating virus while setting the goals and targets of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also working to ensure security and safety of the refugees and the displaced people worldwide in this COVID-19 crisis situation.

In terms of the role of the EU to prevent the spread of corona virus in Europe, we can see that the EU has been taking a number of initiatives which include limiting the spread of the virus, ensuring the provision of medical equipment, promoting research for treatments and vaccines and supporting jobs, businesses and the economy. Still, the rate of getting affected by the virus and the rate of death in Italy, Spain and France among other European countries are alarming.

In case of South Asia, we can see that SAARC is almost a broken regional institution in terms of maintaining mutual cooperation among its member states. However, the SAARC has decided to spend USD13.8 million based on the agreement of the six among the eight member countries. Though it is said that the fund can be used by any of the eight SAARC countries for emergency needs, any specific guideline about the coordination of this fund is still not decided.

In terms of the safety and security of the people of the South East Asian Nations in this pandemic situation, ASEAN has not taken any coordinated approach so far. However, member states are in the process of setting up the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund which is drawn from the ASEAN cooperation fund with partner countries including the United States. It has pledged around USD18.3 million in emergency health and humanitarian assistance, according to the US State Department. Besides, Indonesia, one of the grouping’s five founding states, is calling for a special summit on a regional COVID-19 strategy after infected more than 10,000 people across the region by the deadly virus.

Another prominent inter-governmental organization after the UN is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) with a membership of 57 states spread over four continents. Though as per the official website of this organization, it endeavors to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world, it also lacks coordinated approach to address the COVID-19 pandemic situation. The organization has started to organize virtual meetings among its member states to meet the challenges created by this pandemic situation mostly in April 2020 while the region has already been affected by the deadly virus since couple of months back.

Therefore, it can be said that, though more and more cooperation among states is needed right now if we believe in liberal institutionalist approach in IR, states are busy to handle their domestic health issues and the economic issues as well because the pandemic situation compels the states to do so. As a result, states are reluctant to concentrate on the issues of other states and therefore, the regional and international institutions lost their strength. It proves that, regional and international institutions are nothing but the reflections of the state’s interests what the realists in IR believe.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at the George Washington University.

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